Joe Exter never considered himself a big fan of Pittsburgh Penguins owner/player Mario Lemieux. But that may have changed last night.
Less than 10 months after the former Merrimack captain suffered a near fatal head injury in the Hockey East playoffs, the 25-year-old goaltender signed his first professional contract last night to play for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, Pittsburgh’s minor league affiliate.
“If Mario signs me to an NHL deal,” Exter said excitedly via cell phone on the road to Scranton, Pa., “I’ll love him for life.”
Exter met with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton president Jeff Barrett last night to finalize the deal he agreed to while surrounded by family and friends at his Cranston, R.I., home on Christmas Eve.
“I had a great Christmas, as you can imagine,” he said. “It’s going to be what I’ve wanted for a long time, but what couldn’t have happened if not for the help of a lot of people in my life.”
The deal calls for him to report Monday to the Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League to begin bidding for a spot on the AHL roster. He could be in uniform for Wheeling — considered Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s farm club — as early as New Year’s Eve when the Nailers host the Toledo Storm.
Exter’s Boston-based agent, Bryant McBride, also negotiated a guaranteed invitation to Pittsburgh’s training camp next September, providing the NHL and its players association avoid a lockout by working out a new collective bargaining agreement.
Exter, who will earn what is considered “a standard AHL salary” for goaltenders for half of this season, said he chose Pittsburgh over a similarly competitive offer from the Florida Panthers organization because it potentially offers a faster track to the NHL.
“They have just three goalies under contract for next year,” Exter said, “so I’ve got as good a shot as any to sign with them. And I wanted to sign on with an organization that I had an opportunity to grow in.
“All I want is a legit chance to compete for a job. That’s all I can ask for, and I believe that’s what I’ll get.”
— Former Merrimack goaltender Joe Exter on the beginning of his pro career
If Exter plays in a combined 15 games between Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, his AHL contract is automatically renewed by the organization for 2004-05.
“They’re low on goaltending depth, and they said they consider me a high prospect,” he said.
In just over nine months, Exter, who lay comatose last March for nearly two weeks with severe brain swelling after suffering a fractured skull, has not only cheated death but defied his doctors, who told him he would survive but never play hockey again.
“When the doctors tried to tell me that I won’t play again,” Exter said, “the first thing I told them: ‘I will be back.’”
Despite trying to prepare Exter for several months for life after hockey, Merrimack head coach Chris Serino realized only recently that Exter, who has been training at his alma mater since August, would be true to his word.
“About two months ago after really watching him, I saw how aggressive he was and knew he’s going to play again,” said Serino. “I didn’t see any difference in him. If he’s given a chance, he’s going to make it.
“And I told him to make sure to call me before his first game, because I’m going to fly down to West Virginia and watch him.”
Reprinted with permission from the Eagle-Tribune (Lawrence, Mass.).