For those of you who have been living under a rock, there was a rare occurrence in the NHL in late February. An emergency back-up goaltender — EBUG — actually had to suit up and man the pipes for nearly half a game in the contest between Toronto and Carolina.
Quick summary of the circumstances surrounding an EBUG: for every game, the home team is required to have an EBUG on the premises. This is an amateur goaltender with some reasonable on-ice experience, who is there for the purpose of being called into the game in the event that both goalies on the roster for one team — either team — are incapable of playing. When goalie #1 goes down, the EBUG suits up and waits in the locker room. When goalie #2 goes down, the EBUG signs the standard one-day Amateur Try-Out contract, makes sure his skate guards are off, and it’s showtime, baby!
The game, the result, and the story surrounding the EBUG in question, David Ayres, has sent a tsunami through the hockey world and even mainstream media — from your local nightly news to The Today Show and even Late Night with Stephen Colbert. (It should be noted, Colbert lived his formative years in Charleston, SC.)
But beyond being a media sensation and feel-good story, the NHL is actually giving this some serious contemplation. Concerns regarding the EBUG arrangement had been raised from time to time in the past, but the situation with David Ayres has struck a nerve — so much so that EBUG’s were the first thing on the agenda at the NHL General Managers’ Meetings earlier this week in Florida.
What’s The Fuss All About?
The first thing to note here is, this has happened before, and pretty recently. Beer league goaltender (and, by trade, accountant) Scott Foster manned the goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against Winnipeg not even two years ago.
Foster played 14 minutes, stopped all 7 shots he faced, and had one or two pretty competent saves. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call a model of good rebound control, but the Blackhawks preserved the 6-2 win and Foster got his name in the history books. Foster was the first EBUG to log more than a minute of play, and the first to actually make a save for his assigned team in a regular-season game.
So why all the commotion about David Ayres? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
We have to start with the way that each of the two EBUG’s handled their overnight fame. Foster declined all but one media interview, conducted by phone, and otherwise went back to his normal life. He was updating spreadsheets again at 9am the next day, and suited up for his regular men’s league game that weekend.
Ayres didn’t hold back a bit. After the game was the media scrum and post-game press conference, then interviews with pretty much every Toronto outlet that could book him, plus network television appearances, a visit to the Carolina game that weekend in Raleigh, which was declared “David Ayres Day” for the Hurricanes fans. The stick he used is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was a circus.
The other fact to consider is, it happened on a (Canadian) national TV broadcast during a home game in Toronto. In the hockey capital of the world, the rabid media and voracious fans are eager to swallow and regurgitate every tidbit and factoid about their beloved Maple Leafs. Across the rest of the country, Leaf-Hater Nation took the opportunity to laugh, and laugh, and laugh some more…
Another item of note: Ayres recorded the win — first ever for an EBUG. The ‘Canes were never behind in the game, but the win goes to the netminder who was on the ice when the winning goal was scored. The ‘Canes scored their 4th goal with Ayres in net, the final score was 6-3, and as such Ayres’ place in NHL history is forever inscribed.
There is also Ayres himself. He’s 42 years old, has a wife and three kids, works essentially a blue-collar job. His last competitive hockey game was over 15 years ago, before his kidney transplant, with the donor organ coming from his mother! I mean, come on… If this isn’t the plot of a Lifetime movie, it sure could be! The only thing it’s missing is the $500 he earned from his ATO contract going to buy lumber for him to build a warm stable for the rescue horse ridden by the elderly next-door-neighbor’s blind granddaughter. It’s no wonder the media was eating this up like rabbits in a vegetable garden.
However, this is the part of the story where things get serious, and in case they weren’t already, a little weird. David Ayres’ day job is working for the Maple Leafs organization.
Ayres was widely reported to be either a current or former Zamboni driver, and while it is likely that he has driven a Zamboni at one point, that doesn’t appear to be his primary role. The best information available indicates that he is a facilities and maintenance worker at Coca-Cola Coliseum, formerly CNE Coliseum, the home rink of the Toronto Marlies. The building was built at the direction of, and the funding provided by, the city of Toronto back in the 1920’s, and it is still owned by the government. But daily operations of the venue are handled by Maple Leafs Sport & Entertainment — owner of the Marlies, and the Leafs.
In addition to his day job, Ayres regularly suits up for practice with the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, and occasionally works a practice with the Leafs also — as recently as January of this year. And when he was called into duty against Carolina, he was playing for the visitors — against the team who sign his paychecks.
So this blew up like a hydrogen bomb, and despite the obvious good publicity, it got some people talking about whether this whole arrangement is really a good idea, or a disaster waiting to happen.
What Could Go Wrong?
When Ayres was pressed into duty the score was 3-1 Carolina. The ‘Canes quickly hammered one home, that made it 4-1. Following that the Leafs scored on Ayres with the first two shots they took. That brought the score up to 4-3. Then came the period break, and apparently Ayres got his bearings. He shut out the Leafs in the third, the Hurricanes added 2 goals, and the final was 6-3.
So Carolina gets out of a tough spot, the Leafs embarrass themselves on home ice (a pretty regular occurrence, as Leafs fans will confirm), and David Ayres becomes an overnight sensation. No harm no foul, right? All’s well that ends well?
Playing devil’s advocate, what if Ayres wasn’t as scrupulous as we would hope him to be, and kept letting in goals in the 3rd? For every goal Carolina scores, Ayres lets in 2; the score ends up 7-6 in favor of the Leafs. What kind of insane predicament is the league in then? The hue and cry from the rest of the league regarding favoritism towards Toronto is deafening on a normal day; can you even imagine what the fallout would be like had the Leafs come from behind and won, with their employee playing goal for their opponent?
Could that happen? Is it possible that an unscrupulous team would have a standing arrangement with their designated EBUG that there was a bonus in it for them if they let in some easy ones? Under those circumstances, the visiting team has no choice but to rely on the integrity of this person and the good judgement (and honest intentions) of the host team. Ayres was the first time this situation was tested. Scott Foster was there at the request of the Blackhawks, and ended up going in to play for the Blackhawks. No conflict of interest there.
But the Ayres situation was different. He wasn’t just some goalie from a local beer league. And he’s not just a Maple Leafs fan with some amateur experience. He works for MLSE, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s their employee. It’s barely a half-step away from putting a Hurricanes jersey on Leafs’ backup Jack Campbell. So it’s easy to see how somebody with questionable morals could take advantage of that opportunity to benefit his employers’ interests.
On The Payroll
The comments heard out of NHL team management and league muckety-mucks in the immediate aftermath of the game was that having a 42-year-old Zamboni driver take over in goal against a team fighting for a playoff spot, and winning, was a bad look. It’s likely that discussions concerning the EBUG system that take place during the general managers’ meetings will be driven by that flawed premise. You know what fellas, that’s the least of the problems with this. Let’s take a look at the Maple Leafs here for a second, and discuss the designation of one of their parent company’s employees as the EBUG for home games.
Toronto has, arguably, the biggest citizen population of talented amateur goaltenders in the known universe. It’s not like the Leafs couldn’t find anyone else; if they had held open tryouts I would bet hundreds of qualified, experienced guys — and more than a few women! — would have shown up. And the guy they chose is somebody on their payroll? Does that seem a little fishy to anyone else? And how many other teams in the league have a relationship with their EBUG that goes beyond the normal set of qualifications?
But aside from that, when the EBUG process was formalized in 2015, one of the restrictions was that the EBUG designee could not be a team employee. Team. No mention of any other affiliated organizations, such as the parent company, which is plainly what the Leafs were counting on when this information was made public.
But the fact is, the paychecks for the Toronto Maple Leafs players, coaches, and management and the one issued to David Ayres every two weeks are signed by the same person, and the money comes out of the same bank account. So though the Leafs may be adhering to the letter of the law, this remains a loophole big enough to drive a Zamboni through.
If nothing else ends up changing on the EBUG issue, I hope that they at least remove the possibility of any financial ties between the team and the individual they designate as their EBUG. The league would be well-advised to remove even the faintest whiff of conflict of interest from what is already a weird situation.
Oh, how far we have come from when teams were just 10 skaters and a goalie. Now it’s 20 players on the bench, including 2 goaltenders. The game has changed substantially since then — faster, more competitive, injuries are far more common, and there is now huge amounts of money wrapped up in every NHL contest.
The rule allowing (requiring?) a backup goaltender be dressed for every game was only instituted in 1965, most likely from an increase in goaltender injuries as the game’s pace and talent level began to soar. I expect that the implementation of the EBUG rule was plainly borne of a situation that arose during a real game when one team realized they could be screwed. And you see that in the way the rule is written.
The NHL rule regarding EBUG’s actually specifies: “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.” It doesn’t have to be the EBUG that the home team has designated — it can be anyone in the rink!
So, for instance, in 2014 when the Buffalo Sabres lost one of their netminders to injury, Sabres’ goalie coach (and 13-year NHL vet) Arturs Irbe threw on his equipment and was ready and waiting in the hallway outside the dressing room should he be needed. To the best I can tell this would still be allowed today, because the Sabres were choosing to utilize Irbe instead of the EBUG assigned to the game. Irbe wasn’t the EBUG, and that’s the only person to whom the team employee rule applies. But Irbe could not have been utilized as the EBUG to the visiting team.
Got Any Ideas?
But that situation really represents the best possible outcome — each team having their own third goaltender in the building with his gear for every game. But that’s not really practical — or is it? Is the real solution here to have each team be responsible for their own EBUG throughout the season? Trains with the team, travels with the team, paid by the team?
What about this: there are never any more than 15 games on a given night in the NHL. That number will necessarily increase when Seattle joins the league, making the total 16. The NHL itself could assume responsibility for the selection, assignment, training, travel, and payment of 20 independent EBUG’s. Have it be an adjunct to the system they use for assigning referees. Players would be part of the NHLPA, would be paid at league minimum, and would go where they were assigned on a given night. Then every team would be assured a competent, unbiased, healthy, physically fit, capable EBUG whenever the need arose. That’s one way to go.
Bloggers and pundits are falling all over themselves forwarding possible solutions to this problem — some serious, some less so. But the other possibility is, the NHL could do nothing. I know people are all excited about the publicity that David Ayres directed towards the NHL. But with no predictability and a frequency level lower than a major league pitcher throwing a perfect game, keeping a potentially flawed policy in place merely for the PR doesn’t make any sense. The words, “Hey, let’s tune into the hockey game, the EBUG might have to play tonight!” have never been spoken.
So far the system they’ve implemented has been needed, officially, 3 times. The first guy played for 7.7 seconds and never faced a shot; Foster was the second, Ayres was the third. Thus far it hasn’t resulted in any dire consequences (unless you’re a Leafs fan). A sample size that can be counted on one hand isn’t exactly a robust data pool on which to make big decisions. Beyond ensuring that no financial conflict of interest exists between the host team and the EBUG, this may just be a case of not fixing something that isn’t necessarily broken.
In the end, the NHL General Managers did kick the can down the road. They made an announcement following Monday’s discussion saying that they were, in fact, not going to recommend changes to the current EBUG arrangement. I still believe the financial conflict of interest issue is one part of this that should be formally changed; but let’s wait to see what happens when the next David Ayres gets the call and makes the long skate from the bench to the crease in front of thousands of nervous, bewildered fans.
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One last item to note about the night David Ayres rose to fame. The following has been reported in public sources by reputable outlets.
When David Ayres took the ice, the ‘Canes scored. After that Ayres let in 2 goals on 2 shots. At that point, NHL Senior Vice President Colin Campbell called Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, asking if either of the two injured goaltenders could return to action.
No words I can type here would fully convey just how staggeringly wrong this is. A senior league official, somebody trusted to have no bias towards or against any team, attempting to influence the outcome of a game in progress? If I were an executive from any team, I would be on a plane to the NHL head offices that minute with a baseball bat and a blowtorch. But the complete silence from the hockey community on this, as well as the blase manner in which it was reported, tells me that this is an everyday occurrence. That is positively unbelievable to me.
Fans’ continued support any sport is contingent on one thing, and one thing only: the assumption of a level playing field. Once that assumption is called into question, the fans disappear. Interference in a game in progress from a top league official is ten steps beyond that threshold, and fans of any team should be burn-down-the-castle outraged at this.
This is just the latest example of how the reign of Gary Bettman has brought disgrace and dishonor to a once-revered sport. This is a heinous violation of fan trust, and Colin Campbell should apologize, resign, and never go near professional sports again.