David Ayres became an instant celebrity when we came on in relief for two injured Carolina Hurricanes goalies and beat his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22, stopping eight of 10 shots in just under 29 minutes of play to earn an improbable 6-3 win for the visiting team.
The emergency backup goalie had to beat one of his Hurricanes teammates from that night to get his latest win.
Ayres’ performance was named the winner of the “Greatest Moment of the Season … So Far” bracket tournament in a vote by fans on Twitter this week, defeating Andrei Svechnkov’s lacrosse goal in the semifinals and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s goalie goal — by a four-to-one vote margin — in the final.
More than four months since Ayres’ miraculous performance, he says the recognition and support he’s received hasn’t slowed down.
“Yeah, it hasn’t stopped,” Ayres said in a Zoom call with reporters Thursday after he was chosen as the vote’s winner. “It’s actually gotten quite busier for me, to be honest with you. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I think every single day, there’s a request to do a few things, but it’s positive. Everyone’s kind of reaching out and saying how they enjoy it and how positive it is.”
Ayres, 42, immediately used his new-found fame following the game to bring attention to kidney disease and, as a recipient of a kidney from his mother in 2004, transplants and organ donation.
“I think that’s the main thing, to be honest,” Ayres said. “I’ve been doing a lot of work with the kidney foundation in the U.S. and in Canada and organ donation up here in general. So, for me, that’s been huge. … To be able to use the platform to reach out to everybody and help out, that’s been amazing to me.”
On top of “Ayres 90” T-shirts the Hurricanes sold to benefit research and causes immediately following his win — and more than $3,500 donated by Raleigh’s R&D Brewing for sales of its Storm Brew beer when the team hosted Ayres at their Feb. 25 home game — he has been active in doing several fundraising events.
“We did an emergency fundraiser for the foundation up here in Canada, and we raised $90,000 in just less than three weeks,” Ayres said. So that was pretty good. Apparently that was a pretty high total for them, for what they normally do. So that’s great, to be able to help out. … I’ve heard that there’s been a great response to anything that we’ve kind of done together, which is awesome.”
Opportunities to do more have been understandably limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ayres is among the high-risk population because of the immunosuppressants he must take to maintain his transplanted kidney.
“You obviously have to keep your distance from people, be safe,” Ayres said. “Usually when we (his wife, Sarah, and three children) go out, we’ll pick times when it’s a little bit later … when there’s hardly anyone there, just to kind of keep your distance and stuff.
“But yeah, if I do get COVID, it’s pretty detrimental to my health, for sure, because my immune system’s down pretty far. But, hopefully, you know, kind of avoid it and stay as safe as I can.”
That doesn’t mean if he gets the call from the NHL to be an emergency backup in the league’s planned return — Toronto is one of the finalists to be one of the two “hub” cities — he’s not ready to suit up again.
“I’m sure most teams are carrying their AHL goalies as well,” Ayres said. “But if Toronto ends up being the hub city and they need me, you know that I’m going to be there. That’s for sure.”
While he’s realized his dream of playing in the NHL and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, Ayres knows his biggest impact can be as an advocate for kidney disease research, organ donation and transplants.
“Yeah, 100%. And I said that to a kidney foundation, that if they ever needed me for anything, I’m always open to it,” Ayres said. “Like I said, if it wasn’t for me having a kidney transplant and everything that the doctors and (others) do, I wouldn’t have known to do it.
“So anything charitable, I’m always open for. … If I can do it and put a smile on anyone’s face, then I’m happy with it.”