The National Hockey League is really good at fixing problems that neither need fixing nor are problems in the first place.
“Problems” such as fans voting goons into the All-Star Game. Spin-o-ramas in the shootout. How players should or should not tuck in their jerseys. The conference playoff format. And now, if we’re to believe its presumed prioritization at the next general managers meeting, the latest pox upon our great sport: 42-year-old Zamboni drivers who serve as emergency backup goaltenders (EBUGs) and have the temerity to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs at home on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
After Carolina Hurricanes goalies Petr Mrazek (who played 25 minutes, 9 seconds) and James Reimer (6:10) were injured Saturday night, the team was forced to dress David Ayres, who was the designated emergency backup goalie for both teams. While he has served as a practice goalie for the Leafs, his primary gig was as the Zamboni driver for the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ AHL affiliate.
(NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN this week that Ayres is “not an employee of the Leafs, Marlies or MLSE [Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd.],” something that has been “very widely and wrongly reported” in the aftermath.)
Ayres entered the game in the second period and gave up two goals, causing everyone to freak out — and then the Hurricanes took the game over and Ayres made seven saves in the third period for the win.
The rest is NHL folklore: Ayres was showered with beverages in the Carolina dressing room; the Hurricanes began selling T-shirts with his name and number that benefited his charity of choice; Ayres embarked on a media tour that took him from the “Today” show through several ESPN programs to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” making him the biggest hockey pop-culture sensation since Gritty. He was named an honorary North Carolinian by Gov. Roy Cooper.
It was fantastic fun. So naturally, the NHL wants to squash the EBUG. As least in its current form.
The general managers have discussed changes to the position in the past — after an accountant named Scott Foster became the first EBUG to make a save in a game, for the Chicago Blackhawks in a victory against Winnipeg back in 2018; and after 37-year-old equipment manager Jorge Alves, a former ECHL goalie, suited up for 7.6 seconds for the Hurricanes in December 2016. (Carolina apparently has an EBUG infestation, comparatively.)
They’re reportedly worried about the experience level and skill of the emergency backup. Sportsnet’s Brian Burke, a former VP of NHL hockey operations, was outraged that a goalie over 40 was the option, saying “it was embarrassing for the NHL” and that there were “a hundred goalies in the greater Toronto area” who were younger, had substantially more junior and minor league experience and could have played.
“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,” Daly said via NHL.com. “There’s no easy fixes to it. 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.”
I mean … do they have to continue to work through it? Is this even worth the agenda item at the GM meetings?
Consider this about the current EBUG swarm:
1. There are comets that pass Earth with more frequency than EBUGs enter NHL games. Since the 1965-66 season, when the NHL mandated that a team must dress two goalies, there hadn’t been a case where an EBUG played substantial minutes after both goalies were injured until Foster’s 2018 appearance with the Blackhawks. It’s now happened again in 2020. That’s twice in close to 50,000 games. More teams have played in a blizzard in the NHL since 1965 than have given ice time to an emergency goaltender. Let that sink in.
2. If an EBUG came in and was smoked for like 10 goals, who cares? Where is it mandated, in any sport, that an emergency third-stringer has to display a level of competence? THAT’S WHY IT’S AN EMERGENCY! If the Edmonton Oilers — hockey gods forbid — lost Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the same game, the chances of them winning that game decrease substantially. That’s just horrible luck. Just like it’s horrible luck if a team loses both goalies, which, again, is something that has happened in 0.004% of NHL games played since 1965. The entire concept of the EBUG is that you’re basically screwed. Except …
3. When EBUGs do play, they … are fine, and then the NHL gets a tidal wave of positive media. I know we’re talking a very small sample here, and some are actually applauding the NHL’s proactive approach to “what could happen” if an EBUG gets lit up. But they haven’t been, and instant folk heroes were born both times, and media types who never talk about hockey paid attention to hockey. But by all means, the Leafs lost to their minor league team’s Zamboni driver, so let’s spend two days in Boca Raton, Florida, trying to reroute the comet.
My feelings on the matter aside, something is inevitably going to be done with the emergency goalie rules. So what should be done?
I pestered an EBUG for the answer.
Tyler Stewart is the EBUG for the St. Louis Blues. He participates in practices, including for rival teams on occasion. A vending machine worker at the time, he dressed as the Blues’ backup goalie in a 2017 game against the Dallas Stars, watching Jake Allen play the first period from the St. Louis dressing room until Ville Husso arrived from AHL San Antonio near the end of the frame.
“People always ask me all the time if I’d be nervous, and I say, ‘No, not at all.’ There shouldn’t be an expectation level for us. We’re not NHLers. If you do have an expectation level, then you’re dumb,” he told me Wednesday.
Why did he believe the Ayres appearance ended up being so controversial, when Foster’s wasn’t?
“Some of it was his age. Some of it was because it was against the Leafs. My theory is that some of it is because it’s a Leafs guy playing for the Hurricanes,” Stewart said. “After those first two goals, did the GMs think he was throwing the game or something?”
Daly told me that “perception of biased participation” was one reason the emergency goalie rule was changed a few years ago, when team employees could no longer step in to play on an emergency basis.
Stewart recalls that rule change, too.
“From what I was told, it’s the ‘Marty Brodeur Rule,'” he said. “Before this rule, they could use guys in the organization if they needed to. Marty worked for [the Blues] as an assistant GM at the time. He was their EBUG if it happened. And everyone thought that was unfair, to have a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie ready to play.”
According to the 2019-20 NHL rulebook, the EBUG rule is:
“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.”
There’s nothing on the books currently that suggests this rarely used “break glass for goalie” option needs to have a certain skill or experience level — nor are there age limitations.
Burke suggested that NHL vice president Kay Whitmore, who is in charge of issues such as goalie equipment regulation, should “pick that goalie from the candidates that they have” and there should be a “guy there who meets the criteria” of the “standard that has to be met.”
If someone like Ayres is insufficient, what’s the alternative?
TSN’s Ray Ferraro suggested having a third goalie for every team, paid a standard league salary, who practices with the team and can be available. “If a team chooses to not have him on hand for road games, that’s on them,” he tweeted.
This would also eliminate any worries about bias or conflicts of interest, whether it’s due to quasi-employment with the team or the collection of Leafs jerseys in the closet.
Speaking as an EBUG, Stewart seconded this “third goalie” idea.
“In a selfish way, I hope they add what’s essentially a bullpen catcher. If they’re worried about the conflict of interest, then have the St. Louis guy on the road with the Blues. Have your own guy with you at all times, someone who can fill in when the [NHL goalies] don’t want to practice in the morning, or to play against the scratches,” he said.
Of course, there would be some benefits for a guy like Stewart if his “emergency” job were redefined.
“I’m cool with doing it. They’re staying in five-star hotels, they’re eating like a king. It’s like being one of the boys without being one of the boys. That’s the ideal role. I don’t see why it would be a big expense,” he said.
That sounds reasonable if this is actually an issue that needs addressing. (Narrator: “It’s not.”)
But it does sound like an expansion of the active roster in some way. As Daly said recently: “Who’s a player? Who’s not a player? What qualifies all of that?”
So the solution to the EBUG dilemma is a labor matter, which makes sense: The only thing the NHL does better than fixing problems that don’t need fixing is tethering every decision the league makes to the next collective bargaining agreement.
From the Windy City:
This is a reference to Blackhawks left wing Matthew Highmore, who is No. 36 in your program and No. 1 in this dedicated fan’s heart. Once again, we wish we could have seen the look on the pro shop worker’s face when this request rolled in.
The three NHL deadline trades I (personally) loved most
1. Ilya Kovalchuk to the Capitals. The NHL doesn’t hold a candle to the NBA when it comes to personal beefs, but back in 2009 there was legit heat between Alex Ovechkin and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, on top of the competitive fire that burned between their teams (and still does).
At the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, both Russian stars were on the Eastern Conference squad, and I remember there was a certain tabloid-esque gawking at how they interacted that weekend. But it ended up being the site of their reconciliation, as Malkin helped Ovechkin put on a goofy hat and sunglasses during the trick-shot competition. The catalyst for that hockey peace accord? Ilya Kovalchuk, as the duo hashed out their differences — “talked like men and forgot everything,” Malkin would say — at a Montreal restaurant.
These three players have been linked for 15 years, and I always hoped to see them team up in an effort to win the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin gave his blessing to GM Brian MacLellan, and the trade was made. Kovalchuk said he and Ovechkin have wanted to play together “since we were 13 years old,” even though Ovechkin was 11 when Kovalchuk was 13. But hey, who’s counting?
2. Robin Lehner to the Golden Knights. This was one of the true shocking trades of the day, both because it was assumed Chicago might stick with Lehner beyond this season and because the Golden Knights’ franchise player happens to also be a goaltender. But this move addressed two issues for Vegas.
The first was Malcolm Subban, a backup goalie who could no longer be trusted down the stretch, with a .368 quality starts percentage and a putrid minus-10.41 goals saved above average this season. The second was Marc-Andre Fleury himself, with his numbers for the first four months of the season well off his averages with Vegas. He lost his father in November. A source close to Fleury told me that it affected him greatly, as one might expect. He’s turned the corner this month (7-2-1, .913 save percentage, 2.27 goals-against average), but having Lehner there relieves some pressure while also challenging him.
It’s rare you see championship contenders with established starters bring in another renowned goalie — remember that Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season — at the deadline. This was an aggressive, smart bit of business for GM Kelly McCrimmon.
3. Zach Parise (almost) to the Islanders. I don’t care that it didn’t happen. I still love it. The trade would have sent Andrew Ladd’s contract ($5.5 million AAV through 2023) to Minnesota for Parise’s contract ($7,538,461 AAV through 2025) in some sort of wacky package. The Islanders (for whom Parise’s father played) and GM Lou Lamoriello (who drafted him in New Jersey) were enough for Parise to waive his trade protection. The Wild would have actually found a taker for a contract no one thought they could move. It was perfect! Too bad the news got out before the deal was done, scaring Lamoriello away like a deer when the porch light clicked on. Hopefully they revisit it in the summer.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan, Chris Peters and I combined forces to run down all 31 NHL teams at the trade deadline, while also chatting about EBUG legend David Ayres. Listen to the podcast here, and be sure to review and subscribe.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Bobby Ryan
It’s one of the images of the season: Bobby Ryan breaking down on the bench as Senators fans cheered his hat trick, which he scored in his first game back after entering the joint NHL/NHLPA assistance program on Nov. 20. “It just got harder to keep the emotions down throughout the game. It was incredible. They supported me and I got to contribute. You can’t write that, the way that went. It was just an incredible evening, so thank you to all of them,” he said. Best of luck to Bobby Ryan in his continued recovery. He’s lived a life with significant adversity, and we’ve always admired his strength.
Loser: Joe Thornton
Patrick Marleau will get a shot at a “Raymond Bourque” moment with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his San Jose running mate is still a Shark despite his hopes to do the same. It’s a bummer we won’t get Jumbo on teams like the Bruins, Leafs or Knights. It’s a little strange that a team like the Avalanche didn’t push harder for someone with his skill set and experience. Hopefully this isn’t the end. Thornton deserves better.
Winner: Kings of the West
The St. Louis Blues have won six games in a row. The Vegas Golden Knights have won seven in a row. Because the Western Conference is a giant cauldron of parity, neither team is clear of the field for a division title. But they’re both rolling.
Loser: Princes of the East
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning were steamrolling teams a week ago. Then both hit four-game losing skids. That’s OK for Tampa, which is ensconced in second place in the Atlantic Division. But the Penguins entered Friday night six points up on the Carolina Hurricanes, who are just outside the wild-card bubble.
Winner: Chris Kreider
Things got a little dicey between the Rangers and Kreider in the days leading up to the trade deadline, but in the end both got what they wanted: The forward earned a seventh contract year, and the Rangers won’t have to look for another “Chris Kreider type” as they blossom into a contender. Which, by the looks of things, is happening sooner than expected.
Loser: Jimmy Howard
Oh, to be the goalie for a team in the tank. The Red Wings goalie was pulled for the sixth time since Oct. 29 in Detroit’s 7-1 loss to Minnesota on Thursday night. Oct. 29 is a significant date: It’s the last time Howard won a game. He’s 2-23-2 with an .882 save percentage in 27 games. In the past 40 years, only one goalie has had more losses in the first 66 games of his team’s season: Jeff Hackett of the second-year San Jose Sharks in 1992-93, with 25 losses in 31 appearances. He would end up going 2-30-1. Howard is an unrestricted free agent this summer, unfortunately.
Winner: Alex Ovechkin
Congrats to the Russian Machine for finally cracking the 700-goal ceiling last weekend, and for the new addition to the Ovechkin family who’s on the way.
Loser: Alex Ovechkin’s news cycle
Ovechkin becoming only the eighth player in NHL history to break the 700-goal barrier should have dominated the hockey conversation through the trade deadline. But then the Leafs had to go and get beaten by their own Zamboni driver, and Ovi was old news.
Jeremy Roenick speaks out after his firing at NBC. “I think anybody [that] knows the situation and knows me knows I got one of the biggest raw deals of all time.”
A cool look at the Stadium Series branding at Air Force.
Projecting the 2020 NCAA men’s hockey bracket.
Good piece on Blake Bolden, hired by the Kings as a scout for the Pacific region. “It’s believed that she is the first black female professional scout in the NHL.”
Residents of Henderson are worried about the new Golden Knights minor league arena.
Shayne Gostisbehere survived the trade deadline. From Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher: “Yeah, you know, that’s been the interesting one. I’ve been here a year and I can’t say I’m always on social media, but I’m amazed at how often I’m trading him.”
It’s been 10 years since one of the greatest moments in Canadian Olympic hockey history: Jarome Iginla’s golden pass that Sidney Crosby converted.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Behind the scenes at TSN’s TradeCentre circus. ($)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
My feature on NHL executive Kim Davis, and her leadership on diversity and inclusion behind the scenes at the league.