Coach Ken Pauly couldn't help but get choked up.
His Benilde-St. Margaret's High School boys' hockey team had just won its section championship, deftly upsetting higher-ranked Minnetonka under the bright lights in front of big crowds at Mariucci Arena. And they had done it after getting smacked midseason with a life-altering tragedy: Jack Jablonski, their teammate and friend, had suffered a paralyzing injury playing the sport they all loved. In some ways, it had debilitated the whole team.
"I can't tell you how incredibly proud I am of you," Pauly's voice cracked in the silent locker room, where Jablonski sat in a wheelchair among a jumble of sticks, helmets and joyful, sweaty teammates last week. "Holding this ... together has not been easy."
As Benilde-St. Margaret's heads to the Class 2A state hockey tournament for the first time in four years on Thursday night, Pauly has traveled a course that few coaches have had to forge; remaining a coach to the rest of the team, bringing them through emotional depths and somehow keeping them focused on a sport for a few hours each day when a life drama is playing out in front of them.
"What do you do?" said Pauly, 47 years old and a coach for 22 years. "There's nothing in a manual."
Staring down the what-ifs
After a hit in a junior varsity game at a Dec. 30 tournament sent Jablonski to the hospital, most of the players assumed it couldn't possibly be that serious -- that he would get through it with a tough mind and modern medicine, Pauly said. But when doctors pronounced days later that Jack would likely never walk again, Pauly and the other coaches had to deliver the blow to the team.
"To give them that reality ... that flew in the face of the hope that they had," Pauly said, shaking his head. "It was shock."
Despair hung over them all for a while. Pauly and other coaches kept beating themselves up over "what-ifs." At the first few practices and games, players were tentative, distracted. The Red Knights aren't a physical team -- their strength and focus have been moving fast and passing the puck -- but right after Jablonski's injury, the players almost stopped checking entirely, Pauly said. He's seen glimpses of it all season.
"I probably can count on one hand ... the big hits that we have delivered in the offensive zone," he said.
His players were on the ice but their hearts, their emotions and their heads were someplace else.
The low point came in late January, when, as part of a fundraiser, each member of the team wore a jersey emblazoned with their teammate's number 13 and "Jablonski" stitched on the back.
"It was the worst thing we possibly could have done," Pauly said. It was a constant reminder for each player during the game.
It was then, he realized, it was time to call in a professional. In a group session with Hans Skulstad, a sports therapist, the boys played a numbers game, competing with one another to find and circle numbers on a matrix. It taught them something else.
Was that fun? Skulstad asked them when it was over, Pauly said. Did you like competing? Did you like winning?
Yes, the players said. Yes. Yes.
Did you feel that you were dishonoring Jack by doing that? Is it dishonoring him if you don't go out and do your best now?
It sent a message: The teammates could, in good conscience, play hard and love the game, all while still being concerned for their friend.
"How do we move on but how do we take Jack with us?" Pauly said. "And do it in a respectful way, in a way that's not schmaltzy or just cliché."
Players continued to visit Jablonski in the hospital often. Pauly and his staff ushered him into a new role by giving him game videotapes to watch and analyze, then seeking his advice.
Their play began to rebound, and the team has lost only one game since.
At their first sectional playoff game Feb. 23, Jablonski left the hospital to support the team in person, carefully maneuvering his electric wheelchair into the narrow locker room and surprising them with a wide grin as they came out of a pregame meeting. The players stood speechless at first. Then, one shouted excitedly, "What up, Jabs!" One by one, they gave Jabs fist bumps or hugs before taking to the ice, winning the game 7-0.
"It was almost a sigh of relief," captain Christian Horn said this week. Seeing Jablonski back in the locker room, knowing he was doing well in rehab and knowing he was still part of the team and sharing in the experience means a lot to him and his teammates, Horn said.
Captain Jake Horton credits his coaches for "bringing the whole team back in, not forgetting about Jack but making sure that once we step on the ice, we are playing our game."
Pauly has been careful not to dedicate the team's season to Jablonski. Hockey seasons end, he said, and Jack will need support longer than that.
"Dealing with an adult situation like this ... it's centered them a little bit more, I think," Pauly said. It has helped give the team a sense of purpose, he said, and talented teams with a sense of purpose can be dangerous on the ice.
Horn and Horton say the team is ready to face Edina on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Coming off the section championship with everything clicking, the players know their potential, Horn said. "I feel like we're onto something special here."