You’ve got to hand it to the NHL. They are masterminds when it comes to fixing things that are 100 percent, absolutely not broken.
After making headlines across the world last week with the feel-good story of 42-year-old AHL Zamboni driver and amateur goaltender David Ayres, who stepped in to play emergency goaltender for the Carolina Hurricanes in Toronto, the NHL has an eye toward tweaking the EBUG (Emergency Backup Goaltender) rules that allowed it all to happen in the first place.
Ayres exited to an ovation from his fellow Torontoians after stopping eight of 10 shots in Saturday’s Carolina win while earning the “W’ over the Maple Leafs after both James Reimer and Petr Mrazek left the game due to injury.
Bruins GM Don Sweeney was asked about it earlier this week and admitted the whole thing was “great theater” while stopping short of saying the emergency goalie system needed to change.
“It’s a great story for the person. It’s got a 'Rudy' effect to it. [It] made for great theatre for everybody. I think I’ll hold my comments other than that. We’ve got upcoming meetings and I’m sure it’ll be on the docket as to whether or not we can do something to tweak or improve it,” said Sweeney. “I think that remains to be seen. It’s been an area where we’ve talked about addressing, but I’ll refrain from any further comment other than it was great theatre.”
Ayres is normally the Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, but he’s also served as a practice goalie for Toronto when the Maple Leafs have needed help occasionally throughout the season.
This is something fairly commonplace within most of the 31 NHL organizations where there’s a need for extra goaltenders to face shots at practice if they want to give their top two guys occasional rest during the season, or to perhaps give rehabbing players somebody to shoot at if the rest of the NHL team is on the road.
Mass. State Trooper and former Salem State College goalie Keith Segee is one of several goaltenders serving the EBUG role for the Boston Bruins during games at TD Garden. Former Northeastern University goaltender Adam Geragosian likewise served as an EBUG for the Black and Gold in the first few seasons after the system was implemented.
The way the EBUG system works is that the emergency goalie at each of the 31 NHL rinks could potentially play for either the home or visiting team if they run into a situation where both goalies get injured during the game.
It happened a couple of seasons ago with the Chicago Blackhawks when they needed accountant Scott Foster to step in and protect a lead for them in a game that the Blackhawks won despite the use of the emergency goalie.
In both instances, Ayres and Foster quickly became folk heroes after making their unexpected NHL debuts and inspired thousands of goalies across the world that maybe someday their number could get called in an EBUG situation. Ayres appeared on the "Today Show" and the "Late Show with Stephen Colbert" during a flurry of media appearances earlier this week and captured national attention like few things in the NHL do during the regular season.
His story as a friendly Canadian rink worker and kidney transplant survivor is exactly the kind of everyman success story that everybody loves and can relate to.
The whole EBUG thing is also exactly the kind of viral marketing event and unique wrinkle that separates the NHL from other sports if the league plays it exactly right. Old school hockey people may scoff at it all and say that dropping a goalie like Ayres into a game with possible playoff implications tarnishes the purity of the game.
This humble hockey writer says that those crusty hockey types need to lighten up and realize that the EBUG scenario is rare, but it’s also something that gives the NHL its own special connection to the fans.
The truth is that the EBUG goalies are uniquely equipped to handle the emergency duties given they have some prior connection with an NHL team, and many of them face NHL caliber shots and situations in practice with their teams. This is why any theoretical doomsday scenarios of amateur goalies getting injured or getting lit up for 10 goals simply don’t make sense.
If these goalies are good enough to participate in an NHL practice setting, then they are good enough to play in an NHL game in a pinch. It’s not like they are randomly pulling somebody out of the stands and strapping goalie equipment on them while asking them to stop 108.8-mph Zdeno Chara slapshots.
The two EBUG goalies who have actually seen action are undefeated, did their jobs and showed that this isn’t a situation where anybody — aside from the Maple Leafs players — should worry about getting embarrassed on the ice. It’s a system that’s literally working as exactly as designed and it’s absurd that the NHL would tinker with it at all.
Fast-forward to today and the NHL is expected to discuss the EBUG rules at the GM Meetings, with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly saying that it comes up whenever the situation for an emergency goalie arises.
“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,” said Daly. “We want to make sure people aren’t putting themselves in danger by playing in a National Hockey League game.”
Let’s be honest here.
There was no clarion call to change the emergency goalie rules a couple of seasons ago when Foster did the job for Chicago. This is all coming up because the Toronto Maple Leafs were embarrassed by their 42-year-old Zamboni driver beating them with the visiting Hurricanes last weekend, and now there’s a call to change things so something like that doesn’t happen again in the center of the NHL universe in Toronto.
That’s as much reason as anything to not change the current EBUG system when it all worked as well as it did last weekend.
Perhaps logic and common sense will prevail and the NHL will opt to leave things as they are with the emergency goaltenders, but the sneaking suspicion is that the league wants to tinker with something unbroken.
And that’s too bad, because the National Hockey League has stumbled onto something brilliant here, and the league could use a David Ayres-type story or two every season.