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This 43-year-old Zamboni driver became an emergency goalie hero

You’re never too old to become a hero.

Nothing exists in sports quite like the concept of the emergency goalie. Athletes might play out of position or take on unfamiliar roles out of necessity, but the notion that someone on the periphery of the action might be called up at a critical time is beautiful, especially when it works.

David Ayres, a 43-year-old Zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies, became one of the best rags-to-riches sports stories of the year Saturday when he was forced into action after the Hurricanes lost both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury. Entering the game in the second period with the Hurricanes leading, 3-1, he stepped up and stopped eight of 10 shots he faced. Ayres performed well enough to earn First Star awards in the game and received a standing ovation from the Toronto crowd (despite beating their team), along with the adulation of his new teammates following Carolina’s 6-3 win.

The Toronto-based Ayres may be the Zamboni driver for the AHL, but he also serves as a local emergency goalie for teams in need. The way NHL rules are structured he could either be called into action for the Maple Leafs or the visiting team, as necessity requires, which was the case with the Hurricanes Saturday.

The bizarre, seemingly archaic construct requires a leap of faith on the part of the needy team that’s unheard of in the buttoned up, ultra-cautious world of professional sports. Think about how it went down for the Hurricanes: They needed a goalie, and the only man able to take the ice was an employee of the Maple Leafs system. Ayres obviously performed like a star, but the whole construct of emergency goalies is amazing. It’s the ultimate example of throwing something at a wall and hoping it sticks. and on one magical night in Toronto, it stuck.

Ayres has become an overnight sensation, thanks to his heroic performance. Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin has named Feb. 25 “David Ayres Day,” and the Hurricanes are selling special No. 90 Ayres jerseys with proceeds going to a kidney transplant foundation in his name (Ayres had a transplant in 2004). After that, he will return to Toronto to resume his job resurfacing the ice for the Marlies. In no other sport can an average Joe arrive to work expecting nothing, only to leave it a hero.

The emergency goalie rule makes it possible, and it’s my favorite thing in sports.