Published February 25, 2020
Only in hockey. Hell, only in the National Hockey League.
You’ll never be watching a Major League Baseball game where the call goes out to the paying customers, “Is there a relief pitcher in the house?” You’ll never see an NFL game paused while a team scurries to find an emergency quarterback in the stands. When’s the last time you saw a spare point guard run down from the mezzanine and get suited up to enter an NBA match?
Only in the NHL.
It was a story that transcended the sports pages last weekend. Forty-two year-old David Ayres, a Zamboni driver and practice goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was pressed into action–even preserving a victory—when the visiting Carolina Hurricanes lost both their dressed goalies to injury on Saturday night.
In football, in the event that multiple QBs go down with injury, there is a player on the roster appropriately identified as the “disaster quarterback.” Maybe the most known example of this catastrophe came in the 1965 NFL playoffs, when the Baltimore Colts’ Tom Matte, a running back, dusted off his QB skills from high school and college and went under center, leading his team to a 13-10 overtime loss to the Packers.
But hockey has no such provision. At least the NHL doesn’t. No one on an NHL roster is trained to put the big pads on and go between the pipes.
The practice of calling for a rank amateur to tend goal dates back to the post-war years.
The six-team NHL typically only carried one goalie per squad. And in typical hockey fashion, that meant that if the netminder went down with injury, one of two things happened: The game stopped and everyone waited until the hurt goalie was nursed back to health or he responded to the smelling salts, or the designated emergency spare (every arena had one) would suit up.
Ross Wilson was the Red Wings trainer from 1950-82. One of his duties was to make the crude masks that the goalies of the 1960s wore, including for the great Terry Sawchuk. But “Lefty” was also the designated spare goalie at Olympia Stadium, no matter which team needed his services.
Lefty played goalie in juniors and in the minor leagues, so he wasn’t a beer league guy. Wilson got into three NHL games as an emergency spare goalie, and the amazing thing about that isn’t just that it was three games—it’s that it was only three games. But we’re talking an era where Hall of Famer Glenn Hall once started 502 consecutive games.
Wilson’s job as trainer was to patch up the damaged goalie, and when that failed, Lefty was to don the gear and get in front of the cage himself.
Wilson’s NHL career (you can see it here) stretched from 1953 to 1957, with all games played at Olympia. On Oct. 10, 1953, he suited up for the Red Wings in relief of Sawchuk, playing 16 minutes of a loss, though he surrendered no goals. On Jan. 22, 1956, Lefty slipped on a Maple Leafs sweater and filled in for an injured Harry Lumley, playing 13 shutout minutes in another losing effort. Finally, on Dec. 29, 1957, Wilson became a Boston Bruin for 52 minutes, replacing Don Simmons in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie, stopping 23 of 24 shots. All totaled, Lefty made 32 saves in 33 shots in 81 minutes, for a career GAA of 0.74 and a save percentage of .970.
Not bad for three starts spread over more than four years!
In Wilson’s day, that kind of emergency goalie thing was hardly an anomaly. There was no romance or cuteness to it. It was just the way of the world. Today, Ayres’ turn in net (as well as that of accountant Scott Foster, who at age 36 suddenly became a Chicago Blackhawk) is so abnormal as to put hockey in front of people who normally don’t know a puck from a Ding Dong.
The big time sport with the small time feel
The Ayres and Foster stories are endearing because they underscore how ice hockey has never completely shed its reputation as being a sport played on frozen ponds by humble people who are, as much as you can be in professional sports, the every man. And that’s a good label to not be able to shed.
Hockey, even after the players started getting paid, remains a sport of an unusual dichotomy. The stakes are high but still so much of the game is low key and connects with its fans.
I remember being in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dressing room at the Joe Louis Arena in 2009 after they beat the Red Wings in seven games to win the Stanley Cup. Not long after the celebration on the ice, I wandered in to find Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin sitting by himself at his locker stall, the prestigious Smythe Trophy sitting on a card table (!) a few feet away, also by its lonesome. So there Malkin and I chatted, as he sipped orange juice (!), talking about winning the most hallowed trophy in all of professional sports.
Only in hockey. Only in the NHL.