2022 Fort Wayne Komets vs Iowa Heartlanders

Through Struggles, Obstacles, Joe Exter Leads By Example

Through Struggles, Obstacles, Joe Exter Leads By Example

After multiple life-threatening injuries, Joe Exter has found a home with the Iowa Heartlanders, where he uses his experience to teach the next generation.

Nov 4, 2022 by Mike Ashmore
Through Struggles, Obstacles, Joe Exter Leads By Example

If the name sounded familiar when the ECHL’s Iowa Heartlanders put out the announcement that they were adding to their coaching staff, well…it should have.

Joe Exter.

If you know the name, then you know what he’s been through.

If you don’t, a quick Google search will quickly bring up results on one of the most horrific incidents in college hockey history that left the-then Merrimack College goaltender in a coma back in 2003, as well as a more difficult-to-find separate incident while coaching with the United States National Development Team Program that led to another horrific injury. 

In that 2003 college game, Exter was bowled over in a collision with Boston College forward Patrick Eaves. As Exter fell backwards, his goalie mask flew off and his head struck the ice, leaving him motionless. Exter was unconscious on the ice and sustained multiple fractures to his skull, as well as a brain hemorrhage. At the time, his injuries were feared to be fatal even after he was placed in a medically-induced coma. Exter, however, made a miraculous recovery, which was documented in a feature story by ESPN’s SportsCenter.

In his first foray into coaching in pro hockey after a lengthy run with both the USNTDP and in college, it’s been a slow start for the Heartlanders, with the second-year franchise off to an 0-5 start.

If you know more than just the name—If you know the person—you know that those incidents, as well as his strong faith, allow him to find perspective in such challenges that others may not.

After going through his college injury, Exter sustained another injury that left him hospitalized after an inadvertent collision in a practice while serving as the goalie coach for the NTDP. Again, Exter defied the odds with a quicker-than-expected recovery and he was able to resume coaching later that season.

“When I was going through both significant injuries I had in my life, the head injury when I was playing and then the other one that followed, those all were blessings,” Exter told FloHockey via cell phone.

“Not when you’re going through it, you don’t feel that way, and you know there’s a struggle to get through, but my faith is what carried me through there.  Knowing that you’ve got to go through it, trust that it’s going to work out and that you want it to. As long as you trust the process, you’ll get the results that you’re looking for. I truly believe that with our team this year as well. As long as you have your team and your morals and your principles based on the right beliefs and standards, you’ll come out where you want to, and that’s going to happen with our team this year.”

Exter’s journey is storybook. Listed in critical condition after the horrifying collision in college that had doctors ultimately advise he retire from hockey, the Cranston, Rhode Island-native instead worked to rehab his wide array injuries and pursue a professional career, ultimately earning a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who assigned him to the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.

He played in 42 games and posted six shutouts before quickly transitioning into the coaching world. It’s an environment he latched onto quickly, gaining numerous accolades before getting to Iowa. Notably, he was the NTDP’s first-ever full-time goaltending coach. Exter was looking for a new challenge after a long run on the college side with Ohio State and Michigan State.

“Iowa was an opportunity to get into pro hockey, work with (head coach) Derek (Damon), work with the Heartlanders organization and the close ties they have with the Wild. That was number one. You have to get in. Once you get in, you can make your way to wherever it’s meant to be, and the opportunity and the places that I could go from here were very appealing…timing in life is everything, and with the way it was arranged, I was getting the itch. What was presented to me was something that I wanted, and fortunately it came together on both ends.” 

Exter is happy to be back in the ECHL, a league that he says has much more depth and skill than it did when he was playing, which is in line with the growth of the game in North America over the last two decades. He's happy to bring an unquestioned high-energy approach at a new level to a game that hasn’t always loved him back.

“It’s my passion and my love for what I’m able to do,” he said. 

“God’s given me a gift of a job in hockey, but in how to bring it every day, the best example I’ve ever had in my life to approach every day is from my dad. The opportunities he’s given our family and the example he’s set not with words, but by actions, is something I carry with me every day. The most selfless human being that there is, and the hardest worker. His ability to lead people without many words is powerful, because the biggest form of leadership is your actions. Once people see you bring it the way you expect out of them, they’ll immediately follow.”

That, Exter says, is the key to coaching these days as well, where he draws off lessons learned from his father, Mark, and his faith.

“Everybody can look at what’s happened and think that’s when I came to (my faith), that’s why it happened, but it actually happened when I left home when I was 14 years old to go away to boarding school,” he said. 

“I was sitting there–great school, great friends–but I still wondered what was going to be with me wherever I go. I knew Jesus would be, and that’s [what] I relied on as a 14-year-old. That’s what carried me through the biggest obstacles in my life," says Exter.

 "I can’t believe how fortunate I am. How blessed I’ve been. For both (injuries) and for what I’m doing right now," he says.

"You’ve gone through two horrific injuries, and look at how I’ve come out of it. There’s only one way. That’s what prepares you for situations like this. It’s not the 'why me' attitude, it’s: 'how can this be me in a good way?' Words without actions behind it are fluff. But, your actions are what carry your words with power.”