Patrick Eaves was ready for a good break. Having played a season layered with injuries and tragedies, the Boston College forward needed some light at the end of his tunnel.
Saturday he got that. Originally thought of as a strong second- or third-round selection in the NHL Entry Draft, Eaves got a true shock when the Ottawa Senators announced his name as the 29th pick of the first round.
“I was just kind of sitting there talking to my dad and I heard my name called,” said Eaves. “It’s unbelievable.”
Unbelievable is maybe the appropriate word as it can sum up the season of ups and downs, highlights and tragedies this young player endured.
Eaves’ year began like the dream he hoped — potting two goals in the season opener at Massachusetts. Despite the early taste of success, Eaves knew that this was a totally different level for him.
“From the atmosphere in the locker room, I knew it was a different level [from the national team],” said Eaves, who potted 53 points in 49 games with the U.S. under-18 team the season prior. “I knew a little bit and I knew the level because we’d played college teams [with the national team]. But it was really unique to see the guys in the locker room. There’s something about being in the locker room with older guys.”
Little could Eaves, whose older brother Ben stood as team captain, know exactly how much he would need to lean on those teammates through one of the toughest seasons a college player could have.
Sure, there were good times in the young rookie’s campaign. He noted an early-season win versus Denver as one of those highlights.
“Beating Denver when they were ranked number two, that was a huge game,” said Eaves. “You knew they were a really good team and we were ranked eighth. Right when you got out on the ice there was an energy that was really special. The Conte Forum was rockin’ — it was so fun to be out there.
“After winning that game, once we knew we could win against the big team, in the huddle [before games] there was a confidence.”
Things were certainly well on the way for Eaves. In 13 games he’d scored 17 points. In a critical Dec. 7 game versus Maine, Eaves scored a first-period goal, charging up the Conte Forum crowd. Minutes later, though, the same young Eaves silenced the Eagle faithful.
“I remember the silence throughout the building. You could hear a pin drop,” said Eaves, describing the Conte Forum after he’d been struck in the back of the neck and lay motionless on the ice.
Eaves lay paralyzed temporarily. While skating backwards at a high speed, Eaves was accidentally struck by an opponent’s stick.
“I remember there was a puck going in that was shot to the net and I believe it was shot wide,” said Eaves. “So I was pivoting to go back up ice through the middle and whack, I got hit on the back and the head near the neck.
“I went into what they call spinal cord shock. I couldn’t move. I was lying face down and I remember the ice being really cold and [the trainer] Burt [Lenz] came over and I said, ‘I can’t move.’ I just felt dead.”
Eventually feeling returned and Eaves was even able to return to his feet, much to the pleasure of older brother Ben.
“I got to my knees and [linemates] Ben and Tony [Voce] picked me up,” said Eaves. “Ben said to me, ‘Get up for your standing O.’ It was scary how silent it had been in there.”
Though able to walk off the ice, minutes later Eaves was flat-boarded and transported to the hospital. The prognosis was not good. A broken neck would leave Eaves off the ice for 12 weeks, putting a devastating halt to the young prospect’s rookie season.
“The news was really, really devastating,” said Eaves. “With the World Juniors coming up, it was awful. My brother was there with me and the team chaplain [Fr. Tony Penna].”
Penna, who Eaves listed as a major influence in his life despite only knowing one another for one year, gave him a message that night that carried him through his entire recovery process.
“He told me I had 24 hours to be down and then I had to pick myself up,” Eaves said. “I was really blessed to have him.
“It took me 12 weeks to recover and I got on the ice in nine weeks. It was tough but I realized I just had to keep my spirits up. I couldn’t do much.”
Eaves’ hopes to make an impact-filled return rested on one hope — that the Eagles could have a successful postseason. The hopes were there as he returned to the ice for the opening round of the Hockey East playoffs.
“It was unbelievable,” said Eaves of his comeback game against seventh-seeded Merrimack. “All the coaches, they worked really hard with me after practice and in the early morning, so I worked really hard to get back. When I got to put my jersey back on, I had chills. I knew I’d worked hard for something.”
The silence that Eaves heard in the Conte Forum that December 7th night was quickly erased during the introduction of the starting lineup. The BC faithful reacted with a raucous applause.
“When I got called out for the starting lineup, the place went nuts,” said Eaves. “It was really loud.”
And the building would remain loud as the two clubs gave the crowd a great back-and-forth game. Eaves wasted no time getting back into the swing of things, setting up his brother, Ben, for a 2-on-1 goal. The younger Eaves played an aggressive game hoping to show everyone that not only was he healthy but he wasn’t scared to get hit.
The aggression, though, poured a bit too far. Late in the game, with the outcome still in the balance, Eaves chased a lose puck to the top of the faceoff dots in the Merrimack defensive zone. Simultaneously, Warriors goaltender Joe Exter raced forward, the two meeting in a horrifying collision with Exter’s head crashing against the ice just as his helmet came off.
“It was pretty scary out there,” said Eaves of both the collision, the immediate impact to Exter and the subsequent melee that erupted. Exter had suffered a fractured skull, immediately when into convulsions and needed a breathing tube inserted on the ice to save his life. It was a nightmare Eaves never imagined.
“I would never want to put someone in my shoes [after my injury], and by accident I did,” said Eaves, holding back tears. “It was an awful feeling. I knew I didn’t mean to hit him. I knew that deep down.
“Right after I hit him, I knew I didn’t mean to hit the kid. I had the ref standing right next to me and I said, ‘I didn’t mean to hit him.’ Then chaos broke out.”
Eaves was ejected from the game for the hit and received, afterward, a five-game suspension for the disqualifications he accumulated — one for the hit, one for the fight, and one from earlier in the season. His comeback was over, but that was the least of his worries.
“I got undressed and went down to the training room right away and Doctor [Lynn] English said he’d just left,” Eaves said. “She said it didn’t sound good. ”
The next day, Eaves visited the Exter family at the hospital. He describes walking in there with only one word — scary.
“[Talking to his family] was one of the scariest things I ever had to do. I didn’t know how they were going to accept me,” said Eaves. “Emotionally I knew that they were strung out, but I knew I had to see him. I went the next day.
“His mom was one of the strongest ladies I’ve ever known. She brought me in and gave me a hug and I’ll never forget that. He had such a great supporting cast and they treated me really well. But I’ll never forget walking into that room. It was really scary.”
Fortunately for all involved Exter has been able to make a recovery. After remaining in a coma for more than two weeks, Exter progressed quickly through rehabilitation.
“I’ve heard that he was able to skate, which is great,” said Eaves when asked about the injury at Saturday’s draft. “He’s doing better now so that’s really good to know.”
With that event and tragedy now behind him, Eaves is able to reflect positively on the season. Though filled with difficult situations, Eaves has experienced solid growth — emotionally and physically.
“I wouldn’t change this year for anything because of the stuff that I’ve learned,” Eaves said. “I’ve grown up a lot as a person because of all of this. It’s been the best year of my life, even with all the stuff that has happened.”
With that mentality, Saturday’s draft was a great and fitting culmination of that year.