By Bud Poliquin
© 2005 The Post-Standard
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – OK, it’s not exactly like calling up Michelangelo, watching him paint the Sistine Chapel and then shipping him back to Florence with a firm handshake and a hearty “Well done.” But the story of Mike Ayers still has a lot of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me to it, nevertheless.
Before we get to it, however, you should know that (a) the guy pronounces his last name, “Airs,” which is a hoot because he has none of them; and (b) as far as faces go, his is more early Patrick Duffy than late Gump Worsley.
Anyway, the story …
Mike Ayers is the Crunch’s goalie du jour – the one with the unpacked bags who was promoted from Dayton of the ECHL eight days ago to stand in front of the Syracuse net while the body parts of others rested and/or healed.
And he has done just that for three games now, each of which the Crunch has won – 3-1, 2-0 and 6-0. During that stretch, opposing skaters from Chicago, Binghamton and Rochester have pelted Ayers with 103 shots, 102 of which he has stopped. And along the way, the Syracuse club has picked up six points while improving its already-splendid record to an even-more-sparkling 31-18-2-1.
Nice, huh? Kid picks up club. Kid wins the American Hockey League’s Player of the Week award. Kid settles in with his new squad for the long haul.
Well, yes, yes . . . and no.
“I’m the fifth goalie in the organization,” Ayers said before the Crunch’s Tuesday-morning practice at the War Memorial. “I know that. It’s a numbers thing. I’m just happy to get the chance to play. They have two unbelievable goalies here. When you have two guys who are more capable and have more experience, you have to go with what’s right . . . and that’s them.”
Pecking orders being pecking orders, this means that when Andrew Penner and Martin Prusek are both healthy at the same time – and with Penner at full strength and with Prusek’s pulled groin on the mend, that day is looming – Ayers will likely be dispatched from whence he came.
That is, Dayton. Dayton of the ECHL. Dayton, which is in the exact opposite direction from the NHL and all those thick steaks.
And if that isn’t much of a reward for services rendered, if a pending return to Dayton seems fairly harsh for a fella who has allowed one (1) goal in these last 180 hockey minutes . . . well, if this wasn’t a cold, hard business why would they play it on ice?
“They can do whatever they want to do,” Ayers said of the management teams that run both the Crunch and its parent club, the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets whose two goalies are Marc Denis and Pascal Leclaire. “If I go back to Dayton, I won’t be mad because I’ll feel like I’ll have made the most of my opportunity.”
He’ll get the chance to expand that opportunity in Utica on Wednesday when the Syracuse athletes will play Binghamton in a neutral-site game scheduled to begin at 7:05. This, while Prusek mends and Penner cools. This, because Crunch coach Gary Agnew is nobody’s fool.
“If you’ve got a hot gun, you’ve got to use it,” said Agnew, who plans to start Ayers against the Senators. “We have to use the kid until somebody tells me otherwise, or until he tells me otherwise. We’re going to run with the guy who’s hot. If it’s Penner or Prusek or Ayers, from my standpoint, it doesn’t matter. Of course, there are other things that eventually come into play like contracts and money, but right now that doesn’t apply. I mean, you can’t argue with success.”
It’s a funny thing about success – Ayers, who grew up more of a baseball fan than a hockey fan in Hingham, Mass., has had more of it in the tougher league with Syracuse than he’s had a notch below in Dayton. Here, he’s gone 8-3-0 this season with a 2.16 goals-against average in 11 starts across his various call-ups to the Crunch; there, he’s gone 7-12-1 with a 3.57 goals-against average. Go figure.
And figure this, too: But for that one goal Ayers yielded against the Wolves last week, he’d be sitting on shutout-shutout-shutout which would make him . . . what? Orel Hershiser?
“It was a power-play goal,” Ayers said about the one that got away. “The left D-man had the puck and passed it down to the side on my right. I kind of lost it for a second and the guy just re-directed it, I think. I don’t really know how he got the shot off, but it just broke under my pad and went in. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. I’m sure there were others I got lucky on after that.”
Maybe. But facts are facts, and among them are these: 102 saves on 103 shots . . . an 0.33 goals-against average in his three starts . . . a .990 save percentage against clubs with bad intentions. And at the end of the day? Humility because, remember, Ayers has no airs.
“The one thing I want is for the guys on this team to have faith in me,” he declared. “I want them to know that if I do have to come up and play a game or two, they won’t need to say, ‘Uh-oh. We have to play unbelievable to win because he’s here.’ That’s my motivation. I don’t want to let them down.”
And Mike Ayers – fifth goalie . . . relief help . . . earnest gap-filler – absolutely doesn’t want to get too full of himself, either. But then, there seems little chance of that.
“How can I?” he said. “Come on, I can be back in Dayton on Friday.