About an hour before his Lakeville South team faced Benilde-St. Margaret's in a Class 2A semifinal on Friday, coach Kurt Weber looked at the red band on his wrist and chuckled. "I think even my wife is cheering for them,'' said Weber, who had not taken off the wristband worn in honor of injured Benilde forward Jack Jablonski.
Ken Pauly knew exactly what Weber meant. The Benilde coach is used to private schools being viewed as the villains at the boys' high school hockey state tournament, but the hockey world's mass support of Jablonski has diminished that. "We're enjoying the fact that the anti-private school cheers aren't as loud,'' Pauly said with a laugh. "There are still some diehards out there who are going to love Jabby and hate us, and that's fine.''
Both teams navigated what Weber called "a tender walk'' Friday, as Benilde overpowered the Cougars 10-1 to set up a title match Saturday against Hill-Murray. Since Jablonski was paralyzed in a game last December, Pauly has reminded his players that they cannot feel burdened by the public's wish for a storybook ending to the season. Lakeville South is among the many teams that have pulled and prayed for Jablonski, leading Weber to assure his players that beating Benilde would not make them the bad guys.
Friday's blowout -- coming on the heels of Thursday's last-minute victory over Edina -- added to the growing aura surrounding the Red Knights. They showed none of the stage fright that hampered them in the quarterfinals, scoring five goals in the first 15 minutes, 38 seconds.
Pauly expected them to be looser, and he knew they were eager to atone for a Thursday performance they felt was lacking. At this point, he said, his players have grown used to the high-wattage spotlight generated by Jablonski. They have learned how to keep him close without being overcome by emotion, putting them in position to play for their third state title and first in Class 2A.
"We've had the right perspective on it from the beginning,'' Pauly said. "The noise gets amplified the farther we go, and it isn't always easy. Every question asked goes back to Jack. But we don't hide from it. We embrace it.''
Friday's loss left another close-knit team short of its goal. Lakeville South star Justin Kloos could have chosen to refine his game in junior hockey or with the U.S. national team development program. But he stayed at his high school so he could continue to play with his best friends, Alex Harvey and Joe Freemark, and take another shot at a state championship.
Shortly after Jablonski's injury, the Cougars met to talk about it. They wore Jablonski wristbands and stickers on their helmets and had left messages on his CaringBridge page.
Weber asked them, too, to separate their feelings for Jablonski from Friday's mission on the ice. The best tribute they could pay, he said, would be to play as well as they could.
"[Benilde] has reason to be emotional,'' Weber said. "We feel the same passion for Jack that everyone else does, but at the same time, we know it's an honor to compete. The way you honor Jack and honor the game is to make sure his team competes against a really good team.''
The Cougars didn't come through as they hoped, leaving both Weber and his team empty as the Benilde students chanted "I believe in miracles'' and "We love Jabby.'' They will play for third place Saturday, as Benilde prepares for a game that carries even more emotional weight.
Pauly is well aware of the feeling of inevitability now surrounding the Red Knights. He knows that thousands of strangers have shed tears for a young hockey player they never met and have intently followed his rehabilitation. They desperately want the story to end the way it is supposed to, in triumph, with his teammates putting a state championship medal around his neck.
Pauly had tried to resist that feeling himself. Friday, he entertained the possibility, with one caveat: Whatever happens, it is merely the next chapter in his team's continuing story, and in Jablonski's.
"You do kind of wonder after a while,'' he said. "I think of what Samwise said to Frodo [in the "Lord of the Rings"]. He asked, 'What kind of adventure are we in?'
"I don't know what sort of adventure we're in. A happy ending, there's no such thing. There is no end to this.''