While Merrimack goalie Joe Exter remains in serious condition after suffering head trauma in a game against Boston College last Friday, the entire hockey world waits for the 24-year-old senior captain to get up from his hospital bed.
Exter was injured last Friday when Boston College forward Patrick Eaves and he collided while going for a loose puck. Eaves’ knee hit Exter’s forehead, knocked the helmet off of Exter’s head and sent the goaltender to the ice. Exter began seizing and bleeding from the ears, and was immediately rushed to the hospital where he was listed in serious condition. He was briefly upgraded to critical and stable before being downgraded to serious again.
It was last Saturday morning when Michigan forward Michael Woodford, a former student of Cushing Academy in Massachusetts – the same school that Exter had attended – had found out about the tragedy.
“I found out on Saturday morning when Billy Powers told me,” Woodford said. “I called my parents and they had talked to one of the family friends of one of the assistant coaches for Merrimack, and he said (Exter) was struggling.”
Though Woodford did not attend Cushing at the same time as Exter, he still knew him as a part of the Cushing family.
“He was there the year before I came in,” Woodford said. “But I know him, he comes back home and I’ve talked with him.”
Michigan played Merrimack earlier this season at Yost Ice Arena, when the Wolverines won both contests 5-1 and 4-1. Despite those games, Exter has compiled a good record of 11-16-6 for a not very high-scoring team (the Warriors have the second-worst offense in the Hockey East).
“He’s a really good goaltender,” Woodford said. “Merrimack’s not the most-skilled team, but he’s facing a lot of shots and he’s been stealing a lot of big games for them. It’s tough to see this happen to him, because I think he had a future ahead of him in hockey.”
Michigan’s Al Montoya was a teammate of Eaves’ last year and, as a goaltender, this tragedy hits close to home for him too.
“Everything I’ve heard about (Exter) is good stuff and that he’s a great guy,” Montoya said. “It’s really sad and my prayers and thoughts are with him. I also feel terrible for Patrick Eaves. I was on his team last year and he’s a great kid. Obviously, I know he didn’t mean to do it.”
The night after Exter’s tragedy, Bowling Green goaltender Tyler Masters had his helmet literally ripped off by a slap-shot from Ferris State’s Carter Thomson. Though Masters was fine and breathed a little bit heavier in the seconds that followed, there was some chatter in the crowd about how safe goalies’ masks are.
“(The equipment) is definitely setup to (last),” Montoya said. “But you get goalies and forwards messing with their equipment, and they tend to adjust it to their comfort. They loosen it up – which is not perfect – and maybe that’s what happened.”
Though a case like Exter’s was a rare event, considering forwards and goalies go after the same loose puck all the time – “Usually I lower my shoulder and I go right after them,” Montoya said – there have been situations where it wasn’t an accident.
“Last year, I was out for a couple of weeks,” Montoya said. “There were a couple scrums (before the incident), and there were fights starting. I guess one guy didn’t really want to fight me (fairly), so they sent one of their players – two-on-one – who slid the puck right on through. The guy in the middle left the puck and came after me. My head flipped back, helmet flipped off, I hit the crossbar and hit the ice. I had a concussion.”
Still, there’s not much that can be done to protect that.
“They don’t make goalie masks with the idea that they’re going to be hit by knees and skates,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “You can’t protect against everything. If you give the goalie too much equipment he’s still going to have injuries.”
As the playoffs approach for the Wolverines and have already started for others, there is little doubt that Exter will be on the minds of many.
“It looked like a harmless collision to tell the truth … it’s just crazy,” said Woodford, after seeing the film. “It makes you step and look back at how lucky you are to be playing this game and to be healthy. In a split-second like that, it could take your life or ruin your career.
“Hopefully he’ll get through it and just have a regular life again.”
– The Associated Press and United States College Hockey Online contributed to this story.