NSJ 2020 Player of the Year: David Ayres parlays miracle on ice into fight against kidney disease

In a year unlike any other, the 40-something emergency goalie had the feel-good story of 2020 — and followed it up with lessons in humanity from which we can all learn

David Ayres autographs a shirt with his name and number before a Hurricanes home game Feb. 25. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Sports, like life, is often about opportunity. If Drew Bledsoe had never been injured, Tom Brady may have not taken over as Patriots quarterback and led New England to six Super Bowls.

And if Carolina Hurricanes goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek had not both gotten hurt on Feb. 22 in Toronto in the same year a pandemic washed away countless games and events, David Ayres wouldn’t be where he is today — everyman-turned-hero, dutiful philanthropist and North State Journal’s Player of the Year for 2020.


The Toronto-based emergency goalie stopped 8 of 10 shots in 28:41 to help the Hurricanes to a 6-3 win — stats on their own that don’t seem like best-of-the-year worthy but when coupled with his inspirational back story and charitable efforts afterward, make no one as worthy of the honor in this unconventional year.

“It’s pretty special. … That just gave me an incredible memory,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the game.

What came after Ayres’ performance was even more significant.

It would have been easy for Ayres, now 43, to use his new-found fame for short-term gain. Instead, the Whitby, Ontario-born building operator at Ricoh Coliseum — it was his work there that connected him to Toronto’s AHL team and later earned him the opportunity to be one of the designated emergency backups for Maple Leafs home games — threw himself into fundraising for a cause close to his heart.

In 2004, Ayres was on dialysis and in need of a kidney, which his mother donated and set him back on a path to good health and a return to goaltending — a passion he shared with both his brother and late father.

With the blessing of his doctors, Ayres was eventually allowed to resume playing goal despite the fact that most transplanted kidneys, including Ayres’, are placed in the front of the body below the waistline — a pretty prime spot to be hit by a puck.

His thankfulness for being able to return to a normal life made it easy for Ayres to decide to use his sudden celebrity to raise money for kidney research and donor organizations.

“I think that’s the main thing, to be honest,” Ayres said in late June after his story was named the Greatest Moment of the Season in a fan vote run by the NHL. “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.”

Ayres said one fundraiser in Canada raised more than $90,000 in under three weeks — an example of the countless ways he has prolonged his supposed 15 minutes of fame to benefit others.

So while the stick he used in his NHL appearance is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and there’s even talk of a movie based on his life, Ayres has guaranteed his impact will be much more than a half-hour in an NHL game.

David Ayres looks over the crowd at PNC Arena after sounding the siren before the Hurricanes’ home game with the Dallas Stars on Feb. 25. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

“The night Ayres came to Raleigh to be recognized, sign autographs and sound the siren it was like walking around with a legendary Hall of Famer that had spent decades with us,” said Jon Chase, the team’s vice president of community outreach and executive director of the team’s charitable wing, the Carolina Hurricanes Foundation. “Everyone wanted to say hello, say thank you and be part of the night. But what stood out the most were the individuals or families that had a connection to kidney transplants and donors — they wanted to share their story and thank Ayres for helping amplify the importance.”

Chase said the work Ayres did locally raised more than $10,000 for charities — part of the lasting gift from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Everyone’s journey is special,” Chase added, “but when you have a story like Ayres that catches the eyes of the entire sports nation and even beyond, him being a face of it just increases the message and amplifies the hard work many are doing. I believe the attention Ayres brought, the money he helped raise, not only made a difference but saved lives.”

And above all, Ayres remains committed to the cause.

“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,” Ayres said. “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.”