Ayres’ unlikely turn in net reminds of NHL’s ‘small sport’ charm

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.

Image result for lefty wilson
Lefty Wilson

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.

Peters Latest Product of Babcock’s Growing Coaching Tree

From the time they started whacking at a vulcanized rubber disc on ice, the professional hockey coaches were all by themselves behind the bench. Sometimes they served the dual role of player AND coach. But never did they have any help calling out lines, setting up a power play or designing a penalty kill.

That all changed in 1972, when Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero hired an interloper of sorts.

Mike Nykoluk, a career minor league player who appeared in 32 NHL games in his rookie year of 1956-57 but who spent the rest of a 16-year pro career in the American Hockey League, was brought in by Shero to serve as the NHL’s first-ever assistant coach.

The rest of the league didn’t follow suit very readily.

Every team other than the Flyers had one man behind the bench. Nykoluk, for several seasons, was the lone wolf when it came to assistant coaches.

Gradually, other NHL teams took the plunge—the Flyers winning two straight Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75 likely didn’t hurt—and by the time the 1980s began, pretty much every club employed at least one assistant and sometimes two.

That was ironic, because when the ’80s arrived, Nykoluk had graduated to head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a job he held from 1981-84.

But the idea of a so-called “coaching tree,” i.e. one man spawning assistants who would become head coaches in their own right, is a new concept in the NHL, and the one doing the spawning is Mike Babcock.

Babcock, the Red Wings coach since 2005, has been quietly sending assistants off to other NHL clubs to run their own show.

The latest is Bill Peters, who was named head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes the other day.

Peters served a three-year apprenticeship under Babcock before accepting Carolina’s offer to replace the fired Kirk Muller.

“I’ll take the culture of winning in Detroit with me,” Peters told the Detroit Free Press before being introduced in Raleigh.

It’s a culture that several others before Peters have taken with them from Detroit.

Todd McLellan (San Jose), Paul Maclean (Ottawa) and now Peters (Carolina) are Babcock assistants-turned-NHL-head coaches, and Jeff Blashill (Grand Rapids) and the late Brad McCrimmon (Kontinental Hockey League’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) are two other Red Wings assistants who, since 2008, have left the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to become head coaches.

Babcock is the first head coach in the NHL to have so many assistants move directly from his team to another as a head coach, somewhere, with no stops in between.

Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman didn’t have a coaching tree, per se. Many of Scotty’s former players became head coaches in the NHL, but Bowman’s roster of assistants only produced Dave Lewis (who succeeded Scotty in Detroit in 2002) as a head coach who moved into that role immediately after working for Bowman.

The idea of a coaching tree isn’t new in Detroit, however.

Chuck Daly may have been the Prince of Pessimism when he coached the Pistons from 1983-92, but he was also the King of Opportunity for various assistants.

Dick Harter (Charlotte 1988), Dick Versace (Indiana 1989), Ron Rothstein (Miami 1988) and Brendan Malone (Toronto 1995) were all Daly assistants who became head coaches.

The Hurricanes’ hiring of Peters, who interviewed with two other teams as well, might be the most prominent example of Babcock’s coaching tentacles wrapping themselves around the NHL.

The Hurricanes have been scuffling for years, often on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, having missed the postseason in all but one year since their only Stanley Cup was won in 2006.

They could have gone for an established, regurgitated head coach. They could have hired a recently-retired player. They could have just gone for a name, period.

But new GM Ron Francis, who knows a thing or two about the effect of a coach in the NHL, given that Francis played 23 seasons in the league, went with Peters, who is none of the aforementioned type of candidate.

This tells me that when you have “I worked for Mike Babcock” on your resume, that packs a wallop.

“You have to take the time to go through it and make sure you get the right guy,” Francis told the media at Peters’ introductory press conference, “and that’s what we did.”

But Peters only received a three-year contract from Francis and the Hurricanes, which is a little on the chintzy side. Maybe that’s the rookie coach effect.

No matter. Peters continues the trend that Babcock, perhaps unwittingly, has established: work for me and you’ll have your own team to helm in due time.

There’s more irony dripping from Peters’ hiring by Carolina, and that’s Babcock’s own status in Detroit.

His contract expires at the end of next season, and in two NHL cities—Pittsburgh and Toronto—writers who have noticed Babcock’s status with great interest have pumped for their teams to poach the Red Wings’ coach next spring.

The feeling here is that Babcock will sign an extension with the Red Wings, maybe as soon as within the next 30 days.

Meanwhile, the hunt is on—again—for an assistant coach in Detroit.

If you’re wanting to run your own team someday, it looks like the best path to that is to serve as an assistant to Mike Babcock.

Five coaches since 2008 would concur.

Game 23: Red Wings-Carolina Enotes

So that’s what the Red Wings needed? A shot of Nyquist?

Gustav Nyquist, making his season debut, wasted no time making his mark on the game, scoring 17 seconds into it, then added a breakaway goal late in the third period that ended up being the game-winner, and the Red Wings finally skated off the ice with two points in their back pockets, beating the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3 at JLA.

It wasn’t easy. Breaking a seven-game losing streak (and eight straight at home) never is.

Nyquist banged home a rebound on the game’s first shift, and even when Darren Helm gave the Red Wings a 2-0 lead about five minutes into the second period, you knew that there was going to be hand-wringing before the night was through.

Sure enough, the Canes scored twice in the second period to tie the game. It was looking like so many games in the losing streak: early promise, late heartbreak.

A two-minute 5-on-3 power play seven minutes into the third period provided the Red Wings with a chance to go ahead, and even though it took them 1:45, Niklas Kronwall was credited with a goal when Jordan Staal accidentally kicked Kronwall’s rebound a puck’s width past the goal line. 3-2 Detroit.

Then the Swede Nyquist, blocked from the Red Wings out of training camp because of depth and salary cap concerns, squirted loose at center ice, took a deft pass from Henrik Zetterberg off the boards, skated in alone on Carolina goalie Justin Peters and deked into a backhand, slipping the puck between Peters’ pads for a 4-2 lead. The goal came at 15:58.

Even with a power play and a two-goal lead with less than a minute to play, the Red Wings still managed to give the crowd a scare.

Andrej Sekera scored a shortie with 16 seconds to play, his second goal of the game.

But the Hurricanes couldn’t get set up in the Detroit zone after the ensuing face-off, and the Red Wings (10-6-7) survived.

Nyquist, if he plays one more game, cannot be sent back to Grand Rapids unless he clears waivers, which is highly unlikely. He’s got a scorer’s knack of being around the puck and depositing said puck into the net, and other NHL teams know that. So it looks like Nyquist is with the Red Wings to stay.

Nyquist was called up due to the placing on long-term IR of D Danny DeKeyser with a separated shoulder, which freed up cap space. DeKeyser is expected to miss 3-6 weeks.

Nyquist skated on a new no. 1 line with Zetterberg and Danny Cleary, as coach Mike Babcock split up Z and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Red Wings fired 47 shots at Peters, and even though they blew a 2-0 lead, they never lost composure nor did they cough the puck up very much, even when the Canes pressed after falling behind 3-2.


BOTTOM LINE: It was amazing how much the insertion of one different player (Nyquist) made the Red Wings look more confident and more crisp.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: Jonas Gustavsson started in goal for Detroit, and was quite competent, as he’s been whenever he’s seen spot duty this season. He found himself out of position on Sekera’s second goal, but for the most part Gustavsson was sharp. Babcock shuffled his lines like a deck of cards, and for one night, he drew mostly aces.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Jimmy Rutherford

What: Carolina at Detroit
When: Thursday, November 21, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

Jim Rutherford

Before goalies were the size of basketball players and as wide as garage doors, there were little guys in net, like Jimmy Rutherford.

Rutherford was the beleaguered goalie for the Red Wings throughout most of the 1970s, a chilling decade of hockey in Detroit otherwise known as “Darkness with Harkness,” in reference to the terrorism inflicted by first coach, then GM Ned Harkness.

Harkness was only with the Red Wings from 1970-73, but his destruction was felt for years. Kind of like the damage Dick Vitale did to the Pistons’ future in a mere 18 months, from May 1978 to November 1979.

But one of the good things Harkness did was bring Rutherford back, two years after shipping Jimmy to Pittsburgh in 1971 after Rutherford’s rookie season.

Rutherford tended net in 1970-71 for Detroit, then again from 1973-80, certainly earning the league’s version of the Purple Heart in the process.

On countless nights, Rutherford was left hung out to dry by a Swiss cheese defense. yet somehow, Rutherford still holds the Red Wings record with three consecutive shutouts, pitched in the 1975-76 season.

After Rutherford retired, I met him in his new role as hockey executive. He was the GM of the OHL’s expansion Detroit Ambassadors, who would eventually become the Jr. Red Wings (and who would become the Plymouth Whalers).

The cable company I worked for was commissioned to televise a handful of Ambassadors games in their maiden season of 1990-91, on a tape-delay basis. So it was that I met Rutherford over lunch one day in 1990, to discuss the deal.

We forged a relationship, and later that season he allowed me to wear a mike and stand behind the bench during a game against Windsor at Cobo Arena as a de facto assistant coach while a camera guy recorded it all for a special piece for our viewers. More on that night in a future blog post. You won’t want to miss it.

The next season, the team, owned by Pete Karmanos’ Compuware, became the Jr. Red Wings and moved to Joe Louis Arena. It was during that season that GM Rutherford fired coach Andy Weidenbach and took over as coach himself.

We happened to be televising Jimmy’s first game as coach. But there was a hellacious snowstorm that night, and Detroit’s opponents were late to JLA. The game was delayed by over an hour.

I saw Rutherford pacing outside the dressing room as I did some last minute technical specs checking. I sidled over to him.

“You look like a nervous wreck,” I said. “Of all nights for the game to be delayed, eh?”

He gave me a tired smile. “Yeah. I just want to get this over with.”

We spent a few minutes alone, in the hallway, as I tried to give him some encouragement.

“Have a good game,” I said as I headed back to the production truck.

“Thanks. You too,” he said.

I can’t even remember if the Jr. Wings won that night. I bet Jimmy does, though.

Of course, we all know that Rutherford has carved quite a niche in the NHL as an executive with the Carolina Hurricanes, also owned by Karmanos. Jimmy put together the Stanley Cup-winning team of 2006.

A side note: one of Weidenbach’s assistants the night I stood behind the bench was Paul Maurice, who would one day coach the Hurricanes and also the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After Jimmy Rutherford left Detroit and moved to Hartford (Karmanos bought the Whalers and then moved them to Carolina in 1997), we spoke on several occasions. Once, in 1994, he was going to hire me for a job in the organization but couldn’t work me in. That was fine. It was an honor to be considered.