By Josh Beneteau
Dave Ayers knew the call could come, he just didn’t know when.
Ayers, 38, was lying in bed, feeling a bit sick on Dec. 4 when his phone rang. It was Kyle Dubas, assistant general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dubas needed him in Rochester, N.Y. right away to backup Jonathan Bernier for the Toronto Marlies —the Leafs’ AHL-affiliate — in a game against the Americans. Ayers got up, grabbed his gear and got to the game just over an hour before puck drop.
“I ended up battling some traffic,” he said. “I didn’t have much time because the warmups started at 6:25 and I got there at 5:50. It was kind of rushed.”
It’s not unusual for pro hockey teams to bring up players from the university or junior level to sit in as emergency backup. Just last year, Ryerson goalie Troy Passingham practiced with the Maple Leafs. But what made this story different, and what made social media go wild on Friday, is that Ayers is a Zamboni driver for the Marlies and the building operations manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC).
“When I got out of the game my phone was blowing up,” Ayers said. “It’s funny, everyone thinks [I’m] just a Zamboni driver, but I’ve been practicing with them for three to four years.”
Growing up in Whitby, Ont. Ayers was always playing rep hockey and played as high as the Junior C level. After that, he practiced with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and had a tryout in front of some scouts from the San Jose Sharks. But a kidney transplant ended his dreams of becoming a pro player in 2004.
“After you have a transplant like that, it’s hard to go back,” he said.
From there he began working different jobs managing rinks, eventually ending up at the Ricoh Coliseum where the Marlies play. The first time he put on the pads for the Marlies was to help injured forward Mike Zigomanis practice some shots. Zigomanis was impressed with Ayers and soon Marlies’ head coach Dallas Eakins asked him if he wanted to be the practice goalie.
“So that’s how it caught on,” Ayers said. “I practice whenever the guys need someone in net.”
— Sean McKenna (@hockybro41) December 4, 2015
As building operations manager at the MAC, Ayers is in charge of setting up and tearing down any events that happen in the building. This includes hiring Zamboni drivers, fixing broken lights and converting the rink into a banquet hall or basketball court. But that job is more of a management position, so he still drives the Zamboni part-time at Ricoh “just for fun.”
“It’s quite a bit of responsibility at Mattamy,” he said. “So doing the ice at Ricoh just gets me away from it.”
Ayers didn’t get any playing time, with Bernier pitching a shutout in a 4-0 win. After the game, Ayers’s amateur tryout contract was terminated and Rob Madore, a goalie called up from the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate in Orlando, backed up Bernier on Sunday.
After his one day in the spotlight Ayers is returning to work, at the MAC, at Ricoh and at practice with the Marlies. While this was his first time getting the call for a game from the Marlies, he’s pretty sure it won’t be the last.
“I already knew that it was going to happen at some point because they already told me,” he said. “And they told me the same thing, if something like that happens again they’ll definitely be calling.”