To Boston college coach Jerry York, the play looked like a fumble in football. A slowly bouncing puck in open ice with two players converging on it, goalie Joe Exter of visiting Merrimack College and forward Patrick Eaves of BC. With 6:17 left and the Eagles leading 2-0, it was a crucial moment in a Hockey East postseason game played on March 7. The 24-year-old Exter, out of his net and near the top of the face-off circle, slid and batted the puck away just before the 19-year-old Eaves got there. At that moment the two players met, at full speed, like an infielder colliding with an outfielder on a short pop. Exter took Eaves's legs out from under him. Eaves went flying, then scrambled to his feet. Exter, his mask and helmet knocked off, lay still, on his side. The referee, Jeff Bun-yon, was 100 feet and two zones away, but he raised his arm to signal a penalty. Then all hell broke loose.
Something more complicated, and personal, went through the mind of Merrimack coach Chris Serino. Seeing Exter on the ice, he thought of Michael Maruzzi, whom he'd coached at Saugus (Mass.) High in the mid-1980s. Maruzzi, who is quadriplegic and teaching at Saugus, was paralyzed in a game while playing for Serino. Ever since, whenever any player has gone down, Serino has immediately looked for movement. A foot. An arm. Anything. That's the sign that things will be O.K. Serino looked for that as the team trainers rushed to Exter. He thought he saw Exter wave, and felt a brief moment of relief. Exter, the Merrimack captain, was the heart of his team. "I thought he was saying that he was O.K.," Serino would later say.
Except it wasn't a wave. Exter, who had blood flowing from his ears and was having difficulty breathing, was going into a convulsion. That's when, unbelievably, the players on the ice paired off and began to fight.
I was in Northampton, Mass., at my 10-year-old son Teddy's hockey tournament when I first heard about Exter's injury. I was standing with a group of hockey parents at the hotel bar, and a hush fell over the group as we tried to listen to the news report on the TV. The brief replay brought as many questions as answers. It looked like a play we had seen our kids make any number of times a game. Only in this case the bodies were bigger and the speeds faster, and Exter's mask and helmet had flown off. It didn't appear that Eaves had done anything illegal. For a brawl to have erupted—one player from each team was thrown out, while others filled the penalty box—some essential piece of information must have been missing. It was Bunyon's call: a five-minute major against Eaves for roughing (changed after the game to a major for charging). More important, Exter lay in critical condition at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, having suffered a skull fracture.
Nobody knows if the injury was caused when Exter's head hit Eaves's knee or when it struck the ice. When SI went to press on Monday, Exter hadn't regained consciousness. He was breathing through a ventilator, his condition alternating between critical and serious. His parents, Donna and Mark, of Cranston, R.I., had asked attending doctors not to discuss his case and had not made any public statements.
News of the incident hit me on several levels. As a parent I wondered whether I was crazy to encourage my son's involvement in a game that had become so dangerous. Were the rewards worth the risks? As a former goalie—30 years ago I'd played at Princeton—I was horrified and mystified at the catastrophic injuries that had become part of the game. They were virtually unheard of when I played, which was before skaters were required to wear full-shield face masks in high school and college. Because we lacked those safety features there was an element of caution in how we approached the game. Unlike players today, we didn't feel or act invincible, subjected as we were to lost teeth, broken noses, facial stitches and, once in a while, a blinded eye. The players weren't as big, fast and strong, and the collisions were less violent.
Exter's injury hit me viscerally. Nearly eight years ago Travis Roy, who was playing in his first game for Boston University, crashed into the boards headfirst and shattered the fourth vertebra in his neck. Same league. Same city. Travis is quadriplegic. I wrote a story about him for SI, and we did a book together, Eleven Seconds, during which he talked to me for hours about his accident and rehabilitation, and more generally about hockey and his undiminished love of the game. Travis had come to accept that sometimes God has a different plan, and there's no one to blame for freak accidents in life.
One reason Travis wasn't bitter was that his injury was an accident. It wasn't caused by an illegal hit, just part of the lightning flow of the game. Hockey is dangerous enough when played within the rules. That made me wonder about Eaves and the five-minute charging penalty he'd been assessed, an infraction that implies an intent to injure. What must he be thinking?
I got a tape of the incident and watched it time and again. Three angles. Eaves didn't charge Exter any more than Exter charged Eaves. They were simply playing the game the way it ought to be played. Yet no one at Hockey East was willing to say that Bunyon, the referee, had erred in making the call. Merrimack players converged on Eaves the instant Bunyon's arm went up in front of the Warriors' bench. Incited by the collision and by the ref's call, the Merrimack players started brawling.
Reached by phone, Bunyon wouldn't explain what he saw when he made the call. "I'm not trying to be difficult," he said, "but I have no comment on the play."