Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President
This month we saw the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice”. At the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, a group of American college players pulled off one of, if not the biggest upsets in international hockey history by beating the famed Russian Red Army on their way to winning the Gold Medal. The term “Miracle on ice” was coined from the legendary sports broadcaster, Al Michaels, who exclaimed “do you believe in miracles” as the final seconds ticked off the clock. This truly was your classic David vs Goliath story as the Russians had NHL caliber players who would have been superstars in the league if their country had allowed them to play. Communism vs Capitalism in a time where the Cold War and political unrest reigned supreme. To give you a better idea of how much an underdog Team USA was against the Soviets, consider this, before that game in 1980 the Russians had won four straight Olympic gold medals and had taken home first place in the world hockey championships 12 times in 16 years between 1961 and 1979. In Olympic competition, the USSR had won all 12 head to head matchups against the United States from 1960 to 1980, outscoring the Americans 117-26 along the way. At the 1976 Canada Cup, with the stars and stripes icing NHL players in that tournament, the Soviets beat the states twice by a combined score of 9-2. Finally, in a pre-Olympic tour at MSG in New York, just one week before the 1980 Winter Games, the USSR crushed the Americans 10 to 3. Like the 1972 Summit series that saw Team Canada beat the Russians on the heroics of Paul Henderson, the Miracle on ice has become an iconic moment in the history of our game. A moment that transcends the game of hockey and resonates through a nation as a catalyst to solidarity.
The game itself was a lopsided affair in favor of the Soviet Union in every statistical category except the scoreboard. In all situations, the USSR had 52 shot attempts, while the U.S. recorded just 25. When looking at shots that hit their target, the official box score credited the USSR with 39 total shots on goal with 31 of those coming at 5-on-5. The United States had just 16 shots, and less than half of those were at even strength. Look a little closer and in reality six of the Americans shots were actually dump ins, meaning they only had a grand total of 10 shots on goal. 71% of the shots that hit the net in that game were from the Russians, a number that jumps to 81% if you take away the time the USA spent on the power play. The number of scoring chances was also lopsided, as the Soviets had 20 opportunities 5-on-5 and the United States had a grand total of 7. The Red Army had almost 75 percent of the scoring chances but only turned on the red light two times. On the other side of the ice, Team USA converted on almost 50 percent of their chances, scoring three times on seven grade-A chances.
At the time, the United States was not considered a contender in international hockey. The US was not producing a substantial number of NHL players and had very few successes on the world stage. The Lake Placid Olympics changed all of that. A large number of those players went on to have great NHL careers and forged a path for the growth of the game in America. I can still remember, as an 11-year-old kid, watching this all unfold without a true understanding of what it would mean some 40 years later. Hearing Al Michael's voice and watching the game wind down still, to this day, gives me goosebumps. If you haven’t watched the movie, “Miracle” I strongly suggest you do. The iconic speech from the late great Herb Brookes is still one of the greatest of all time. "The thing that has stuck in my mind all these years is the brilliance of Herb and his master plan," said Craig Patrick, Team USA's assistant coach in 1980. "Because he had a plan in place the year before. He pushed them hard for seven months, and I witnessed every second of it." The Soviets' counterattack like a fast break-in basketball. They thrived on odd-man break situations. But the U.S. basically cut that off by defending with numbers. There always seemed to be three or four players back, which was a credit to the U.S. speed and discipline. Bottom line, this proves the point that on any given day, any time can win and we should always “Believe in Miracles.”
It goes without saying that the biggest story of the week belongs to the emergency backup goalie, David Ayers. I hesitate to refer to him as the Zamboni driver because, although that is one thing that he does, it certainly doesn’t define him as a person. Fifteen years ago he was an aspiring pro goalie when he started having kidney problems. Needing a donor, his mom stepped up to give her son a kidney and his life was saved, although his hockey dreams had to be put on the back burner. "I never thought I'd play hockey again at that moment," Ayres said after his surprise appearance last Saturday. "To go from that to what happened tonight is just unbelievable, unreal." For those who didn’t see it, after both Carolina Hurricane goaltenders went down with injuries halfway through a game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 42-year-old Ayers was pressed into action. The NHL stipulates that every home team must have an emergency goalie in attendance for every game and be available for either team. Ayers, who spends a lot of time practicing with the Leafs and their AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies, was called out of the stands and told to suit up. At the time, he was very skeptical about all the SOS messages to his phone. "Some of the text messages I was getting, I was thinking: 'These guys playing with me right now? I'm going in?' Then I got Maple Leaf Director of Scouting Reid Mitchell’s text and it said to go in," After close to a decade as a practice puck stopper and being an Emergency Back-Up Goalie (EBUG) at Scotiabank Arena for more than half the NHL games the past two seasons, Ayers dream of playing in the show was now a frightening reality. Ayers went into the Hurricanes net with almost half the game remaining and things looked very bleak for the Canes early on as he let in the first 2 shots. After a between period regroup, Ayers shut the door with 8 third period saves and the Canes provided goal support to go onto a 6-3 victory. "I thought I'd be nervous if it ever happened," Ayres said. "And I was nervous for the whole second period. As you could tell, I couldn't stop a puck if I had to in the second. But I told the boys in the intermission, 'I'll be ready to go. That was awesome the way they supported me." Post-game the Carolina dressing room erupted with cheers of “Dave, Dave, Dave!” and Ayers was showered with spray from water bottles and praise from Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour "It's pretty special. You know, I told the guys after the game to thank him because that just gave me an incredible memory. ... What a moment for him that he can have the rest of his life. That's incredible. That's why you do this." Brind’Amour proudly proclaimed.
It didn’t take long for Leaf nation to self-implode. The fans, social media, mainstream media, and the hockey world simply could not believe that the Leafs could lose to a “Zamboni driver”. The negativity that surrounded the Leafs overshadowed the real story. The Canes did an amazing job as a team to deal with the adversity and pull together as a team to protect Ayers. It was amazing to see the character and commitment that they displayed during and after the game. The way they handled the situation and the attitude they possessed should be an example to all organizations at all levels of hockey. Rod Brind’amour is a tremendous leader and it showed through the actions of his team. In the other locker room, Toronto head coach was Sheldon Keefe was un-happy with the loss but pleased with the way things played out for his practice goalie. Keefe was the Toronto’s AHL coach for five-plus seasons and got to know Ayers really well, "He's got great energy, he comes to the rink every day, wants to work and wants to be a part of it," Keefe said postgame. "Whether it's with the Marlies or Leafs, he's always there when you need him. There probably isn't an emergency goalie anywhere in pro hockey who has seen as many pro shots as this guy. He's in every day getting work. It feels terrible that at the end of the night, he's on the other side from our end of it, but on a personal note, you can't help but feel pretty darn good for the guy." Feeling “good” was really difficult for the Leafs who took a great deal of criticism for the loss. Too much in my opinion. This is a very tough place for a team to be in. When you are faced with a situation like this, it is easy to lose focus mentally and let your foot off the gas. It happens to everyone, and after the first 2 shots, the Leafs probably felt comfortable to cruise their way to victory. Carolina had other plans, and, with their backs against the wall, executed an amazing plan. Let’s give credit to the Canes and understand the tough position that the Leafs faced.
While a lot of people pine for their 15 minutes of fame, Ayers's time in the spotlight may last a little longer than most. National TV interviews in both Canada and the US, late-night television appearances hanging with Stephen Colbert and thousands of t-shirts sold with his name and number, highlighted a whirlwind couple of days following that once in a lifetime experience. The mayor of Raleigh proclaimed this past Tuesday “David Ayers Day” and governor Ray Cooper made him an honorary North Carolinian. “There have been so many really cool people that have text messaged me and reached out to say ‘congratulations’ or ‘I’m proud of you or you did a great job. Even people that I don’t know that have reached out to me to say they were proud of me. That’s the best.” A $500 dollar paycheque, game puck, and first-star celebration spin capped off an incredible night on the ice for Ayers who’s back maintaining his sheet of ice, driving the Zamboni and stopping pucks in Leafs practice. While life has returned to normal, it will be hard him to not sit and daydream about playing in an NHL game and if you had to sum things up in a word, Ayers probably described things best when he was asked what it was like to beat the Leafs, “Awesome!”.
As part of the Leafs-Canes post-mortem, the questions around the Emergency Backup Goaltender policy started to emerge. Many of the pundits in the media and around the league raised concerns over the fact that a 42-year-old was charged with the monumental task of entering an NHL game. The concerns brought to light a conversation about reviewing the policy and creating more stringent guidelines as to who is eligible to be an EBUG. In fact, it is expected to be on the agenda next week when the NHL General Managers get together for a meeting. "I think it's a fair question," Deputy Commissioner Daly told NHL.com. "It's something we've given some consideration to over the years. As recently as last year, we discussed it with the general managers. It happens very, very rarely, but when it happens, it obviously raises everybody's attention to the issue and whether there are fixes that need to be made to that particular issue." Ayers became the oldest goalie in history to win his NHL debut and has been moonlighting as an EBUG for a few years now. Before that, the last emergency backup to play in an NHL game prior to Ayres was Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant who made seven saves for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Winnipeg Jets on March 29, 2018. Chicago was down a goalie when starting goalie Collin Delia, who was filling in for an injured Corey Crawford, went down early. This led to Foster making his unlikely debut. He was the first EBUG in NHL history to actually make a save and the fact that Foster was a perfect 7-for-7 made the story even better. "A lot of people have probably put themselves in my shoes," Foster recalls when asked about his NHL debut. "It probably reinvigorated the kid in them. Those are the cool stories I've had with people -- that they can instantly see themselves in your place and know, sitting in the stands, it's still OK to dream."
Goodwill aside, many feel that a younger more experience goaltender with a legitimate playing resume should be available. A former Major Junior, College, or Pro goalie should be mandatory. That all sounds great, but in all reality, although it isn’t as easy as you may think. Finding a former high-end goalie that is available to attend every game, and is also currently playing in some capacity, is not an easy task. The most important quality that an EBUG needs to possess, is they have to actually be playing consistently. Former high-level goalies are great, but not many are actually playing goal on a regular basis in men’s rec leagues. Current college goalies are not available due to their own schedules and Junior goalies simply are not eligible, unless drafted and signed. "There are no easy fixes to it," Deputy Commissioner Daly reiterated. "Particularly, we have to work with the NHL Players' Association. Who's a player? Who's not a player? What qualifies all of that? But obviously we want what's best for the game, and we want to make sure people aren't putting themselves in danger by playing goal in a National Hockey League game. So that's obviously something we have to continue to work through." Officially there is currently no age or ability stipulations in the NHL rule book. In part, the section on EBUG reads “In regular League and Playoff games, if both listed goalkeepers are incapacitated, that team shall be entitled to dress and play any available goalkeeper who is eligible. This goalkeeper is eligible to sit on the player’s bench, in uniform. In the event that the two regular goalkeepers are injured or incapacitated in quick succession, the third goalkeeper shall be provided with a reasonable amount of time to get dressed, in addition to a two-minute warm-up (except when he enters the game to defend against a penalty shot). If, however, the third goalkeeper is dressed and on the bench when the second goalkeeper becomes incapacitated, the third goalkeeper shall enter the game immediately and no warm-up is permitted.” After reading that and seeing what happened in Toronto, I’m sure the NHL will have a look and make some adjustments, but, for me, watching the pure joy and excitement on the face of David Ayers was an amazing moment and the feel-good story of the year.
This past week we also got to see the trade deadline. Every year at this time the hockey world is singularly focused on the deadline and what will happen. Are teams buyers or sellers, what big names will move, who overpays for players, who makes the best deals and how do our favorite teams make out. This is an exciting time for teams and fans alike, but for players, it can be nerve-racking. I went through numerous deadlines as a player and was nervous every time. The days leading up and the day itself causes more anxiety than most people realize. “Am I going somewhere”, “Where am I going”, “What’s my family going to do” are all questions most players ask themselves. When the deadline passes, and you are staying put, is a relief and an exciting time as you welcome your new teammates and look forward to a strong playoff run. Two players that I kept a close eye on this year were Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Both 20 year NHL veterans, both playing in San Jose, and both without a Stanley Cup. There was a lot of speculation leading up to the trade deadline that both guys would be moved to playoff teams to give them a chance at a cup. Unfortunately, Joe Thornton was not dealt with. “It would have been nice to at least have a chance,” Thornton told reporters after the deadline. “I wanted a shot, you know? Believe it or not. I’ve been hunting this thing down for 22 years, so I wanted another shot at it…. Back to the grind, and that’s how it is.” Thornton has a no-movement clause in his contract but he made it perfectly clear to Sharks GM Doug Wilson that he would waive it for an opportunity to win his first Stanley Cup. Wilson tried to find a match and it’s rumored the Stars and Bruins explored the idea. Nothing did end up happening and the whole San Jose organization felt bad for Thornton, including interim head coach Bob Boughner, “I said it would’ve been nice to find the right situation and the right opportunity. He was very public with his comments about that. We support that as well and would’ve liked to see someone who has given so much to the game be rewarded. But, the very next day, and even today we had a conversation about it, and he said all that’s over with now and let’s get back to work. We’re all doing something we love to do. There’s no better example of that mindset than Jumbo. He always has a smile from ear to ear and loves coming to the rink every day. That’s never going to be an issue with him.” Good on Thornton for having the right attitude. He is a class guy and don’t be too surprised to see him come back next year for another shot at trying to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug.
As for Marleau, he did get his wish and ended up with a pretty good opportunity with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. In Pittsburgh, Marleau will have a legitimate chance to live out his lifelong dream of winning a cup much like Ray Bourque did after being traded to the Colorado Avalanche after 20 years in Boston. Bourque went on to win his first and only cup that season. "Patrick is a player who can play anywhere in our lineup," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "He's a good two-way player, provides leadership and will be a good fit with our team." In his postseason career Marleau has racked up 72 goals and 127 points in 191 playoff games. He has been one of the most durable players in history with his 846 consecutive games played ranking fifth all-time. He has played 1,715 games in his career since being drafted second overall in 1997 and ranks fifth all-time in that category and trails record-holder Gordie Howe by just 52 for the most ever. “There’s no shortage of new and exciting things, that’s for sure. One thing about this game, it’s always…always…always opportunities,” Marleau said after the trade. “There are always challenges. I’m grateful for this opportunity.” This move back to the Eastern Conference is a positive one for Marleau who grew up a Pens fan, “(I was) just a big Mario fan and a Penguins fan. They were winning Cups back then. and (maybe) we can win one this year. We’re going to go over some stuff and some talk. And I’m just getting used to the guys right now. Getting to learn the system and that. I imagine it’s going to be much the same as before. Play hard. Play the right way.” In his debut against the Kings, Marleau played nearly 14:29 and was a prominent figure on the Penguins checking line with center Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev. Marleau had just one shot on goal, but three near misses, two hits, and a blocked shot. The Blueger line with Marleau had an impressive 75% Corsi created eight scoring chances, and didn’t yield any (8-0), according to Natural Stat Trick. While the scoring ability has slipped just a bit over the years, Marleau can still skate and his quickness should help the Penguins down the stretch and into the playoffs. Good Luck Patrick, hope your dreams come true.
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