The NHL’s general managers are scheduled Monday to meet in Florida and one of the points of discussion, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, is the league’s emergency backup goalie (EBUG) policy.
That’s the same EBUG system that gave sports in general, and the NHL in particular, one of the feel-good stories of the year Saturday. That's when David Ayres, a 42-year-old Zamboni-driving, kidney-transplant survivor, was forced into action. Playing the final 28 minutes, he helped the Carolina Hurricanes hold on for a 6-3 victory over his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
The system is simple: Each NHL city has a roster of amateur/former pro goaltenders who can be called to the arena in case of emergency, namely late-breaking injuries from one of the two goalies each NHL team carries (they can play for the home or visiting team).
Generally, they just sit in the stands and never even dress. Sometimes they get on the bench to cover for a single injury. On the rare occasion there is a second injury, they can get put on the ice.
It’s one of the great Walter Mitty moments in sports — a shot at the bigs. Ayres let the first two shots he faced by him, but then rallied to save the next eight and preserve the lead. He was greeted with a huge celebration in the Canes locker room and has used his moment in the spotlight to raise awareness for kidney disease.
This was somewhat humiliating for the Maple Leafs, who couldn’t score more on a guy who last played minor league hockey in 2014 and is officially the operations manager for the building their AHL affiliate plays in.
Other than that, it was perfect.
So, let’s give a quick piece of advice on how the discussion should go at the NHL GM meetings: Don’t change a damn thing.
To do so is to look for a solution where there is not only no problem, but actually something positive about the game.
“It’s something we’ve given some consideration to over the years,” Daly told NHL.com. “As recently as last year, we discussed [it] with the general managers. [An emergency goalie gets in the game] very, very rarely, but when it happens, it obviously raises everybody’s attention to the issue and whether there are fixes that need to be made to that particular issue ...
“Obviously we want what's best for the game,” Daly continued. “And we want to make sure people aren’t putting themselves in danger by playing goal in a National Hockey League game.”
Playing NHL hockey comes with an inherent level of danger for even NHL hockey players, so the sentiment that trotting out a 40-something beer-league guy is worth considering makes some sense, but is that really worth blowing this up?
No one has been injured yet and EBUGs playing remains rare. The last one prior to Ayres came in March 2018, when a 36-year-old accountant named Scott Foster made seven saves for the Chicago Blackhawks against Winnipeg in the third period.
Besides, teams aren’t just plucking players out of the stands. They know who these guys are — generally former minor leaguers, college players or even NHLers. Ayres may be the oldest EBUG to ever see the ice, but he works regularly as a practice hand for both the Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate.
Any complaints that a team could lose a game — and conceivably miss the playoffs or some home ice advantage — because of a player who is not on their roster is ridiculous. The EBUG can play for either team.
Besides, the benefits are too great.
The scene of Ayres, wearing No. 90 in Carolina red and white, but sporting a face mask with Maple Leafs blue on it was classic. Same with the way the pros tried to pump him up when he got out there. Then there was unmistakable excitement every time he handled the puck or made a save.
It caused the NHL to get all over the highlight shows, websites and social media. That rarely happens for a late-February contest (it rarely happens in the United States for a Stanley Cup game, to be honest).
Ayres became a sensation. He appeared on “The Today Show” and “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert, where he shared his wild story and promoted kidney awareness. The Hurricanes then flew him and his wife down to their next home game. (Ayres’ wife, Sarah, doesn’t normally drink, but while watching from the upper deck a Maple Leafs fan bought her a beer just as Ayres took the ice. She chugged half of it to calm her nerves).
It was all good. The NHL should do what it did with Foster back in 2018, bring Ayres to its annual awards show and have him present the Vezina Trophy to the league’s best goaltender.
Hockey needs buzz and this is buzz. It’s a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick born organically out of necessity. What else can you do, force teams to carry a third goalie (and then what?) or make them put a regular player in there?
It’s an entirely fun, completely unique little system. Every few years, we get a night like last week in Toronto.
So whatever this “discussion” entails at the GM meetings, it should be brief and end with just one agreement.
Don’t try to fix what’s already awesome.
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