BOCA RATON, Fla. — Dale Tallon had a sinking feeling.
With his team chasing Toronto for the Atlantic Division's final playoff spot, the Florida Panthers' general manager — like most fans and media — cringed when the Carolina Hurricanes lost both their netminders to injury in a crucial game against the Maple Leafs last month.
Down the tunnel and onto the ice at Scotiabank Arena that Saturday night trudged emergency backup goalie David Ayres, a 42-year-old Zamboni driver sporting blue gear and frayed nerves.
"I thought maybe they'd score 10 goals," said Tallon, before adding with a laugh: "But, you know, I was wrong again."
Ayres was beaten on the first two Toronto shots he faced, but turned aside the next eight as Carolina, with a suffocating defensive performance, downed the Leafs 6-3 in one of the most embarrassing losses in franchise history.
NHL GMs discussed the emergency backup rule Monday as their annual Florida meetings opened at the posh Boca Beach Club, but decided since a team having two goalies go down is so rare, the current protocol of an extra netminder being available to both clubs in each arena remains sufficient.
"It's a system that is in place for a safeguard," Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "And it's a pretty good safeguard."
The system came into existence after Florida was nearly forced to put its goalie coach between the pipes in 2015 when both its crease protectors were hurt in the same game.
An emergency backup goalie, "EBUG" for short, has only been required to play twice — Ayres and Scott Foster for the Blackhawks in 2018 against Winnipeg — in roughly 6,200 games since the Panthers' incident.
"It happens infrequently," Cheveldayoff said. "But I was on the other side of it when we lost in Chicago. It was fantastic story for them, wasn't so fantastic for us.
"Those guys that go in there, they gave their best and the results turned out fine."
It also could have been a terrible look for the NHL — a billion-dollar business with millions in playoff revenue for individual teams at stake — if Tallon's prediction of Ayres getting shelled by Toronto had come to fruition.
"We were nervous," said Florida's GM. "Very nervous."
And there's no way of knowing how these meetings would have unfolded if things had turned out differently.
"It's an interesting dynamic," Cheveldayoff said of the emergency goalie. "If you look at where that position evolved from even just a couple years ago where you didn't have someone in the building, it's come a long way.
"It served its purpose."
Ayres, meanwhile, has shot to stardom in the wake of his unusual, feel-good story.
The resident of Bowmanville, Ont., and arena operations manager at what was once Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto donated his stick to the Hockey Hall of Fame, appeared on "Today" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in the United States, and was a guest of the Hurricanes at a game last week in Raleigh, N.C.
Ideas bandied about outside the GM meeting rooms since Ayres, who became the oldest goalie in league history to win his regular-season debut and the first EBUG credited with a win, was forced to play nearly 29 minutes for Carolina have included making sure a member of each team's backroom staff can suit up in a pinch or having a minimum threshold in terms of ability across the board.
But because the emergency goalie could be forced to suit up for either team, it's already in the best interest of the home club to provide the best option available. Ayres practises with the Leafs on a regular basis and has served as a backup in the American Hockey League under similar circumstances.
"It's been in the news and was again here of late," Vegas Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon said. "But I think everyone's pretty comfortable with the procedures that we have in place.
"It's such a rare occurrence."
Teams are responsible for submitting a list of approved EBUGs to the league — there are 136 currently on file — before each season.
Traditional hockey markets have plenty of options when it comes to finding former junior or university goalies (ex-pros currently aren't allowed), but what about in warmer climates?
"There's probably more than you realize," said Cheveldayoff, who added the Los Angeles Kings held tryouts. "Once the word has gotten out, there's been a lot of capable guys."
So the current system remains in place.
"We're fine with it," Tallon said.
At least until the next EBUG is called into action.
NHL KEEPING TEAMS IN THE LOOP ON CORONAVIRUS
Cheveldayoff said as coronavirus continues to spread, the NHL is providing clubs with updates. "They're the focal people that talk to the bigger governmental bodies and the different people that have the best information," Cheveldayoff said. "They've pushed that out to us on a regular basis." The International Ice Hockey Federation, meanwhile, cancelled six tournaments in the men's and women's under-18 category on Monday, while Switzerland's professional league suspended its playoffs until March 15.
AN EXAMINATION OF LAST YEAR'S RULE CHANGES
GMs went over a number of the tweaks to the rulebook instituted at the beginning of the season, including a penalty for unsuccessful challenges for goalie interference and video reviews for high-sticking infractions. Through 1,015 games this season, there have been 54 challenges for goalie interference, with 23 getting overturned. That's compared to 141 challenges, with just 33 getting overturned, at the same point of the 2018-19 schedule. There's also been eight challenges for game stoppage — including hand passes and sequences where the puck goes out of play in the offensive zone resulting in a goal — but none have been overturned to date.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press