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 mat 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 C-5 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."