Everybody loves an EBUG — just ask David Ayres, the 42-year-old sometime Zamboni driver who stepped into the breach at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in early 2020 as Carolina’s goalie-of-last-resort and backstopped the Hurricanes to a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.
Ayres wasn’t , of course, the first emergency back-up in NHL history, not by a long shot. Nor can he lay a claim (yet) on being the busiest stand-in on the league’s books. Born in Toronto on a Wednesday of this date in 1919, Ross (a.k.a. Lefty) Wilson filled in on three separate occasions in the 1950s, for three different teams. His career numbers may be meagre, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of: 81 minutes played, one goal allowed, one tie and an average of 0.74 secured.
As the Detroit Red Wings’ assistant trainer and sometime practice goalie in the ’50s, Wilson was (i) readily available and (ii) willing to lend a pad and a glove at a time when NHL teams didn’t usually dress a spare goaltender.
His NHL debut came in 1953 when, aged 33, Detroit’s own Terry Sawchuk had to withdraw from a game in Montreal with a cut on his knee. For 16 third-period minutes, Wilson faced the likes of Rocket Richard, Boom-Boom Geoffrion, and Jean Béliveau, stopping four shots as he preserved Detroit’s 4-1 lead.
In 1956, Detroit was playing at home to Toronto when the Leafs’ Harry Lumley twisted a knee. Wilson played 13 minutes on that occasion, staring down Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay as he blanked the team that paid his salary. Detroit won that one all the same, also by a score of 4-1.
In his dispatch for the Globe and Mail, Rex MacLeod described what would seem to be the scene captured in the photo above:
One Detroit rush was frustrated with Wilson in goal when the Toronto net came loose from its moorings. There was no explanation for the accident but Wilson was a No. 1 suspect.
Marshall Dann of the Detroit Free Press was able to track down a witness to the crime willing to testify for the prosecution:
[Detroit winger Marty] Pavelich was skating in for a shot when the goal suddenly became unanchored and Wilson swung it sideways to prevent any shot. Knowing Lefty, Pavelich figures it was too much of a coincidence.
Wilson’s final appearance in an NHL net was in 1957 in Boston when the Bruins’ Don Simmons went down mid-game with a dislocated shoulder. Now 38, Wilson played 52 minutes on Boston’s behalf that night, giving up a goal for the first time in his big-league career, not to Howe or Alex Delvecchio, but to Wings’ defenceman Jack McIntyre as the teams fought to a 2-2 tie.
Lefty Wilson continued in his off-ice duties with the Red Wings until 1962. He also served as Team Canada’s trainer at the 1976 Canada Cup. He was 83 when died in 2002.