CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — When Friday night arrived and college hockey’s playoffs made its annual return to Boston, there was plenty of excitement in the air. Even if Boston College, playing host to Merrimack in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, was on Spring Break, making the Conte Forum crowd unusually sparse, the simple fact of the matter was true: it’s playoff season for college hockey.
Less than two hours, though, after this beginning, all excitement came to an end.
As Merrimack standout goaltender Joe Exter lay unconscious on the ice after an open-ice collision with BC’s Patrick Eaves, every heart in Conte Forum fell in its accompanying stomach. As minutes passed, fans were unsure of what was happening.
The Boston College doctors rushed onto the ice, and the feeling grew ominous. For those near the Merrimack runway who had a good look at the workers attending to Exter, the worst fear likely grew as they saw doctors work to restore the senior goalie’s breathing.
Time passed, the game ended with fisticuffs and a meaningless ending, and word disseminated throughout the media that Exter now was fighting for his life.
Personally, my duty as a writer seemed secondary. My assignments would become complete before night’s end, but the journalist in me became hidden. The human inside of me, and inside of most everyone inside and outside the hockey community, came to the forefront.
At that point, the realization of the Boston College-Merrimack playoff series wasn’t that BC held a one-game-to-none lead. It wasn’t that Friday night’s game erupted into an NHL-like melee (frankly, it’s hard to watch a teammate suffer and entirely hold in your emotion). These issues were suddenly trivial.
The real issue is the health and well-being of not a hockey player, but an outstanding human being.
The soft-spoken Joe Exter, a senior at Merrimack who gained every ounce of respect the hard way — earning it year after year with top-notch performance both on and off the Merrimack ice — had begun his toughest battle ever: one for his life.
When his coach, Chris Serino, addressed the media on Saturday, he did so with the class and dignity that he’s become synonymous with. But even he couldn’t hide emotion, fighting back tears through most of a 30-minute press conference, showing, though, that it’s okay for even the toughest men to cry.
Serino’s biggest message was that of thanks. The hockey community, as it has so many times recently when called upon, was an incredible support mechanism for Serino, his players, the Exter family and everyone associated with Merrimack hockey.
Serino didn’t sit in front of a room full of media with prepared statements; he spoke from the heart. He spoke of a player who obviously in four years didn’t just become his number one goaltender, but also his friend.
He also talked of a team that had to face more than just the adversity of losing a goaltender, but one that had just hours to recover before game two of the quarterfinal series. So many might feel that revenge is the only thing on Merrimack’s mind — with the emotion of Patrick Eaves’ full-speed collision that led to Exter’s injuries still fresh in the minds — but Serino went beyond the call in tell us that wouldn’t happen.
There was no coach-speak in Serino’s address, particularly when addressing retaliation. He didn’t simply tell you it won’t happen, he went as far as to “stake his reputation” on it. Words likely don’t convey the feeling that this coach expressed. Though those who know Serino wouldn’t be an ounce surprised.
Serino also publicly, and on the record made something else clear — Eaves did not hit Joe Exter with the intent of injuring him. What so often is forgotten in an incident like this, and on the average day, is the danger that accompanies the playing of the game. Many may want to vilify Eaves in the incident, but as Chris Serino said on Saturday, no one feels worse about this than Eaves.
Sadly, there’s little for even a sportswriter who is supposed to be able to talk forever to say further about this extreme tragedy. Even though the calendar says March 8 and our hockey minds say playoff times, as we think about slap shots and stacked-pad saves, there’s no doubt that our minds will be more focused on Joe Exter and his family.
God Bless you, Joey.