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Two Victims A seemingly innocent race for the puck ended with one college player fighting for his life and another suffering the pain of being blamed

March 24, 2003
March 24, 2003

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March 24, 2003

Two Victims A seemingly innocent race for the puck ended with one college player fighting for his life and another suffering the pain of being blamed

To Boston College coach Jerry York, the play looked like a
fumble in football. A slowly bouncing puck in open ice with two
players converging on it, goalie Joe Exter of visiting
Merrimack College and forward Patrick Eaves of BC. With 6:17
left and the Eagles leading 2--0, it was a crucial moment in a
Hockey East postseason game played on March 7. The 24-year-old
Exter, out of his net and near the top of the face-off circle,
slid and batted the puck away just before the 19-year-old Eaves
got there. At that moment the two players met, at full speed,
like an infielder colliding with an outfielder on a short pop.
Exter took Eaves's legs out from under him. Eaves went flying,
then scrambled to his feet. Exter, his mask and helmet knocked
off, lay still, on his side. The referee, Jeff Bunyon, was 100
feet and two zones away, but he raised his arm to signal a
penalty. Then all hell broke loose.

This is an article from the March 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

Something more complicated, and personal, went through the mind
of Merrimack coach Chris Serino. Seeing Exter on the ice, he
thought of Michael Maruzzi, whom he'd coached at Saugus (Mass.)
High in the mid-1980s. Maruzzi, who is quadriplegic and teaching
at Saugus, was paralyzed in a game while playing for Serino. Ever
since, whenever any player has gone down, Serino has immediately
looked for movement. A foot. An arm. Anything. That's the sign
that things will be O.K. Serino looked for that as the team
trainers rushed to Exter. He thought he saw Exter wave, and felt
a brief moment of relief. Exter, the Merrimack captain, was the
heart of his team. "I thought he was saying that he was O.K.,"
Serino would later say.

Except it wasn't a wave. Exter, who had blood flowing from his
ears and was having difficulty breathing, was going into a
convulsion. That's when, unbelievably, the players on the ice
paired off and began to fight.

I was in Northampton, Mass., at my 10-year-old son Teddy's hockey
tournament when I first heard about Exter's injury. I was
standing with a group of hockey parents at the hotel bar, and a
hush fell over the group as we tried to listen to the news report
on the TV. The brief replay brought as many questions as answers.
It looked like a play we had seen our kids make any number of
times a game. Only in this case the bodies were bigger and the
speeds faster, and Exter's mask and helmet had flown off. It
didn't appear that Eaves had done anything illegal. For a brawl
to have erupted--one player from each team was thrown out, while
others filled the penalty box--some essential piece of
information must have been missing. It was Bunyon's call: a
five-minute major against Eaves for roughing (changed after the
game to a major for charging). More important, Exter lay in
critical condition at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center, having suffered a skull fracture.

Nobody knows if the injury was caused when Exter's head hit
Eaves's knee or when it struck the ice. When SI went to press on
Monday, Exter hadn't regained consciousness. He was breathing
through a ventilator, his condition alternating between critical
and serious. His parents, Donna and Mark, of Cranston, R.I., had
asked attending doctors not to discuss his case and had not made
any public statements.

News of the incident hit me on several levels. As a parent I
wondered whether I was crazy to encourage my son's involvement in
a game that had become so dangerous. Were the rewards worth the
risks? As a former goalie--30 years ago I'd played at
Princeton--I was horrified and mystified at the catastrophic
injuries that had become part of the game. They were virtually
unheard of when I played, which was before skaters were required
to wear full-shield face masks in high school and college.
Because we lacked those safety features there was an element of
caution in how we approached the game. Unlike players today, we
didn't feel or act invincible, subjected as we were to lost
teeth, broken noses, facial stitches and, once in a while, a
blinded eye. The players weren't as big, fast and strong, and the
collisions were less violent.

Exter's injury hit me viscerally. Nearly eight years ago Travis
Roy, who was playing in his first game for Boston University,
crashed into the boards headfirst and shattered the fourth
vertebra in his neck. Same league. Same city. Travis is
quadriplegic. I wrote a story about him for SI, and we did a book
together, Eleven Seconds, during which he talked to me for hours
about his accident and rehabilitation, and more generally about
hockey and his undiminished love of the game. Travis had come to
accept that sometimes God has a different plan, and there's no
one to blame for freak accidents in life.

One reason Travis wasn't bitter was that his injury was an
accident. It wasn't caused by an illegal hit, just part of the
lightning flow of the game. Hockey is dangerous enough when
played within the rules. That made me wonder about Eaves and the
five-minute charging penalty he'd been assessed, an infraction
that implies an intent to injure. What must he be thinking?

I got a tape of the incident and watched it time and again. Three
angles. Eaves didn't charge Exter any more than Exter charged
Eaves. They were simply playing the game the way it ought to be
played. Yet no one at Hockey East was willing to say that Bunyon,
the referee, had erred in making the call. Merrimack players
converged on Eaves the instant Bunyon's arm went up in front of
the Warriors' bench. Incited by the collision and by the ref's
call, the Merrimack players started brawling.

Reached by phone, Bunyon wouldn't explain what he saw when he
made the call. "I'm not trying to be difficult," he said, "but I
have no comment on the play."

In addition to the major for charging, Eaves was assessed a
five-minute fighting penalty for his involvement in the
post-collision melee. As a result of those two majors, he was
suspended by Hockey East for five games. (He had already incurred
a one-game suspension earlier in the season for a major penalty;
for his second major he received a two-game ban, for his third an
additional three-game suspension.)

A Hockey East press release explaining the suspension did say
that Bunyon and the two linesmen agreed there had been no attempt
by Eaves to injure Exter--a statement at odds with the assessment
of a major penalty for charging. But the league's commissioner,
Joe Bertagna, refused to state that the charging call was
erroneous, which would have exonerated Eaves. The job of his
referees, he said, was too hard for them to be subjected to
public second-guessing.

Hockey East's handling of the tragedy disappointed University of
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, Patrick's father. The elder Eaves's
career as an NHL forward was cut short after he suffered a dozen
concussions over the years, forcing his retirement from the
Calgary Flames at 28. "There were some mistakes by the officials,
and to not acknowledge that, to put it all on Patrick, is an
injustice," he says. "Patrick's confused about the suspension,
but this is a political situation," Mike says. "Sometimes you
have to just throw your hands up and let it go. It is what it is.
I told him to put his energy into praying for Joe."

Patrick Eaves has had a nightmare freshman year. In a game
against Maine on Dec. 7, he was struck on the back of the neck by
an errant stick and fell to the ice as if shot. For two minutes
he lay facedown without moving. "It was spinal-cord shock," he
says. "I couldn't move. It was very scary. There was time for all
sorts of things to go through your mind. Once the feeling started
to come back, I just wanted to get off the ice."

A CAT scan revealed that he had suffered a crack in his C5
vertebra from the blow. A bit harder, a bit higher, and Eaves
might have been a quadriplegic. Instead he spent the next nine
weeks in a neck brace, removing it only to shower. After seven
weeks he began light weightlifting. Sometimes he would dress with
his teammates before practice to feel like part of the club.
They'd go on the ice, and he'd undress alone. After nine weeks
the neck brace came off and Eaves began skating, trying to regain
his conditioning. "The shooting and stickhandling came back
first, because I'd played a lot of games in my head," he says. "I
could visualize it. But the conditioning took time."

After missing 12 weeks he made his return against Merrimack. In
the first period he had an assist on a goal by his brother, Ben,
the team's captain and one of the best players in the country.
Everything felt great. Then came the third-period collision with
Exter. "I saw him leave the net out of the corner of my eye,"
Eaves says. "I thought I'd beat him to the puck. Until I saw the
replay, I thought I had beaten him to it. The collision was
scary. Right away I was worried about Joe. We hit really hard.
And he hit my knee."

Eaves went to the hospital twice to see Exter, once the day after
the accident and again four days later. "Joe's parents were
unbelievable to me," says Eaves. "His mom explained what Joe was
going through. It was an unfortunate accident. Nobody's made me
feel guilty. Just two kids playing hard. I go to bed thinking
about Joe and praying for him, and he's the first person I think
about when I wake up. My suspension's a minor deal; that's not my
focus. I'm confused about that, but this is about Joe getting
better, not what my punishment is."

A year ago it was Serino, Merrimack's coach, who was fighting for
his life, and Exter was the one praying. Serino, 53, was battling
throat cancer. "It was life-threatening," he says. "Joe called me
every week. He spoke at my fund-raiser. I was hitched to a chemo
bag, but I liked to be around the kids, so I'd come in. He'd
always take me aside and tell me, 'Don't worry, Coach. You'll be
back next year.'" Serino's cancer is in remission. "He was taking
care of me and my feelings while also holding the team together
and dealing with the pressure of being a goalie. I don't want to
take anything away from what he's done as a player, because he
was as good as any goalie in the country this year. But his play
is not even on the radar screen compared to the kind of person he
is."

Last Thursday, as Exter lay in intensive care, Hockey East held
its annual awards banquet. Exter was named a second-team league
all-star, and he shared the Itech Three Stars Award, given to the
player who is most often named one of the three stars of the
game, with Ben Eaves. The usually festive gathering was subdued,
as thoughts were never far from Exter. Three miles away, he was
battling for his life.

"The e-mails and letters we've received are unbelievable," says
Serino. "People call with stories of others who've come back from
severe skull fractures. Gordie Howe had one. Scotty Bowman. I got
a call about a goalie at Boston University, J.P. McKersie, who
was in a coma for a week after a bicycle accident, then came back
and played. Those are nice calls, the success stories. They give
you something to grab on to."

COLOR PHOTO: AL PEREIRA/ADVANCED PHOTO IMPACT As Exter, the goalie, slid to bat the puck away, he took out the legs of Eaves (9), whose knee struck Exter's head and fractured his skull. As Exter was attended by trainers, a brawl erupted.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN QUACKENBOS [See caption above]SIX COLOR PHOTOS: VIDEO COURTESY OF BOSTON COLLEGE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AL PEREIRA/ADVANCED PHOTO HOCKEY FAMILY Mark, a former player, and Donna (with Joe on Senior Night) do not blame Eaves for their son's injury.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER FRIGHTFUL SEASON Eaves, who was playing in his first game since cracking a vertebra, is now suspended for five games.
Nobody can be certain IF THE INJURY WAS CAUSED WHEN EXTER'S HEAD
HIT EAVES'S KNEE or when it struck the ice.
"It was an unfortunate accident," says Eaves. "I GO TO BED
PRAYING FOR JOE, and he's the first person i think about when I
wake up."