His record for the Wheeling Nailers to 7-1-1, goalie Joe Exter, who suffered a near-fatal skull fracture in a Hockey East playoff game for Merrimack last March (SI, March 24, 2003). Exter collided with Boston College's Patrick Eaves and hit his head on the ice, which caused his brain to swell. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for 10 days and expressed doubt that he would ever play hockey again. Yet Exter, 25, who was an NHL prospect before the accident, says that he "never gave up on the dream of playing at the highest level." In April he completed a physical rehabilitation program in a week—most patients take six. By August he was skating on Merrimack's rink.
When doctors cleared Exter to play at the start of the 2003-04 season, he received limited interest from pro teams. But Greg Malone, a scout for the Penguins—who had been looking at Exter before his injury—recommended that the team give him a shot. After Exter passed a battery of mental and physical tests, the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., signed him on Dec. 24 and sent him to Wheeling of the ECHL. Despite Exter's late start, "his technique has improved with every game," says Nailers coach Pat Bingham. "If a coma doesn't stop this kid from reaching his goals, I can't imagine what will." If Exter, who has a 2.20 goals-against average, appears in at least two more games, Wilkes-Barre is contractually obligated to re-sign him for next season. But Malone says that if Exter continues to play well, he could earn an invitation to Pittsburgh's training camp in September. The goalie welcomes the challenge. "This experience taught me that the only thing you control is your work ethic," says Exter. "I wouldn't wish that hit upon anybody, but if what I'm doing inspires one person, that's a kind of blessing."