The Benilde-St. Margaret's varsity boys' hockey team was quietly intense as the players crammed into their small square meeting room Thursday night, a mess of boys fumbling around in their skates and pads.

About to hit the ice to warm up for their first playoff game, the players got a short, early pep talk from coach Ken Pauly: Play smart, he told them, find your passion on the ice and keep your head.

When he ended it with a rousing "Let's go, boys!" and the players filed out of the room, a surprise awaited them. Toward the end of their narrow locker room sat a quiet inspiration: Jack Jablonski, their sophomore teammate who in late December suffered a devastating spinal cord injury that doctors have said will keep him from walking again. For Jablonski, who is now in daily physical therapy, it was the first time back at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center, the first time he had been near the ice he considered his second home.

He wore a wide grin.

"Oh, ho, ho!" one teammate yelled excitedly, as the players filed wide-eyed to fetch their sticks.

"What up, Jabs!" several yelled excitedly. "Woooo!"

Jablonski, who has continued to build strength and gain more movement in his arms, raised his right hand to fist bump the players as they filed past him one by one. A couple leaned down to give him a quick hug.

Going to the arena felt strange but exciting, Jablonski said, as he awaited his teammates. But it was nice to be back to the sounds of the pucks whacking against boards, to feel the cold rink air and even to smell the locker room sweat.

"It's home. It's what I've grown up doing," he said. "It's second nature."

Minutes later, at the second team meeting ahead of the game with Holy Family, Jablonski took his usual spot, backing his motorized wheelchair into the corner where he used to sit, careful to maintain superstitious pregame rituals.

Pauly walked in and stood among the team. "Our team is whole tonight," he told them.

Team chaplain Mike Jeremiah cast aside the prayer he had picked out and instead referred to Shel Silverstein's book "The Missing Piece."

"Things are not perfect until that piece is returned," he told the team. "This is it tonight."

In prayer, Jeremiah thanked God for "our brother Jack and the miracle that he has proven to be for each of us ... In the face of fear, strength is there."

Having Jablonski show up was good "for the long-term emotional health of the team," Pauly said after the game, as Jablonski hung out in the locker room again. "Just to see him. Just to have him here. It's beyond words."

Benilde-St. Margaret's won the game 7-0.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102