LOS ANGELES – The final horn had sounded, sealing another win for the L.A. Kings. From a bustling concourse inside the bowels of the Staples Center, Jack Jablonski hustled to the visitors’ locker room.
Once inside, the stench of sweaty breezers, helmets and gloves overwhelmed. But Jablonski, wearing a lanyard with the words “LA KINGS STAFF,” basked in it all: the chaos, the equipment, even the odor.
Four years after a paralyzing injury in a Minnesota high school hockey game shattered his athletic dreams, Jablonski is forging a new life far from home. With the worst of his long and often very public recovery behind him, he’s pivoting into adulthood with the same tenacity he once showed on the ice, attending a prestigious university, meeting new friends who don’t know his background, making his own decisions — and embracing the game that both crushed and saved him.
“Without the sport, I don’t know what I would do and what I would be able to turn to, to cope with something,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be in life without hockey.”
Like everything in Jablonski’s life now, moving west is a transition that has come with extra obstacles. But, he says, it was a change that he needed.
A man on campus
At 8:45 a.m. on a Monday in February, Jablonski wheels his electric wheelchair onto the University of Southern California’s campus, the fronds of palm trees swaying lightly behind him.
Students dart across his path as he heads toward Spanish class. Some swerve around him on bicycles, others zip by on skateboards, many stare down at their smartphones, ears blocked with headphones.
At 20, Jablonski has become adept at navigating whatever comes his way. January marked the beginning of his second year of classes, and now, as a sophomore, he occasionally sees a smile from a passerby or hears, “Hey, Jabs!”
They are connections that didn’t come easily.
He arrived on the campus near downtown Los Angeles halfway through the 2014-15 academic year, admitted for spring semester on a scholarship for injured athletes. By the time he got situated, most freshmen had settled into dorms and already made friends. Jablonski, meanwhile, moved into a sparse one-bedroom student apartment just off campus. A 40-something caregiver sleeps on a bed in the living room.
“Early on it was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” he remembers. “I didn’t go out that often. I watched TV, like, all day on Saturdays.”
Jablonski chose USC partly for the climate. The warm, mild weather is good for his body, which can’t easily regulate temperature. Better yet, there are no snow piles to stop his wheelchair.
But on long days spent alone in his room, feeling overwhelmed, his thoughts often drifted to home and, inevitably, to the moment when his head crashed into the boards and so much was lost.
His main caregiver, Danny Antonio, had promised he wouldn’t hover, knowing college students need their space. But Antonio found himself suggesting they go places simply to get out of the apartment.
Carrying nearly a full load of credits, Jablonski struggled not only to learn the demands of college academics, like every other freshman, but he also had to figure out aspects of medical care, schedule time for therapy, and find classmates or helpers who would share notes and grab books from the backpack strapped to his chair. Paralyzed below the chest and with limited use of his hands, he negotiated with instructors on how best to take tests and turn in assignments. He clicks his iPhone adeptly with his thumb.
Back on campus this fall, Jablonski made social life a priority. Instinctively shy, he forced himself to initiate conversations knowing strangers felt awkward around his wheelchair.
“They don’t know what to do, and I understand it. … People are uncomfortable, so you have to make them comfortable,” he said. “I have to keep the conversation going.”
Soon, he pledged a fraternity a couple of blocks from his apartment. He is now an official member of Tau Kappa Epsilon.
Making new friends in a place where he isn’t recognized has felt freeing, he said.
He is forever grateful to Minnesota for the outpouring of support. He knows he’s benefited from the stream of visitors, media attention, fundraising, and connections — something many others who are injured don’t get.
But he is also relieved to be away from the limelight.
“At times, you know, it was too much,” he said.
Now, he said, the people he meets don’t know his story, and “I’m able to build friendships for who I am.”
Between classes, Jablonski zips back to his student apartment to eat lunch and soak up the sun in a courtyard filled with blooming bird of paradise plants. It is his small slice of paradise, too.
He’s grown a few inches since he was injured at 16, and is now careful to watch his weight and nutrition, choosing market sushi and grilled chicken over burgers and pizza.
Once a week, kinesiologists bring in equipment for therapy sessions. Twice a week, he meets them at a campus gym.
They lift him from his chair and hoist him onto a massage table, where they stretch his 6-foot-1 frame and methodically move his legs, bending them at the knees, rotating his hips from side to side.
Jablonski continues to show improvement in using the muscles he can still control, frequently bending his arm behind his head or raising his hands in expression as he talks.
He’s working hard to expand those abilities and to maintain his muscles while hoping for a medical breakthrough.
He serves as adviser to a foundation bearing his name — a nonprofit for which organizers are working to complete tax-exemption compliance requirements. The foundation has committed to raising $300,000 for two patients to undergo an experimental epidural stimulation procedure at the Mayo Clinic. The procedure has produced promising results in patients: giving them voluntary arm and leg movement, the ability to stand, and gains in bowel, bladder and sexual function.
Jablonski’s family has watched the study expand around the country, and they are more hopeful than ever that he will benefit from it someday.
In the meantime, he approaches therapy sessions as an athlete.
“Come on Jack! Bust it out!” Linnea Arpon yells out as Jablonski lies facedown on a massage table, wincing and shaking as he stretches his shoulders in push-ups, his trainers holding his hands in place.
“Three more!” Arpon’s partner Alicia Villarreal chimes in. “Push! Push!”
Despite the distance, Jablonski is in frequent touch with friends and family from back home. One morning last week, between classes, he sees a text message telling him about another Minnesotan, 20-year-old Matt Olson, who was paralyzed playing hockey.
He pauses and thinks back to the hospitals and surgeries and all the medical questions he faced.
“I remember what it’s like to be in that situation,” he says somberly.
By midafternoon, he zips back to his apartment where his caregiver rushes to help him change from a T-shirt and shorts into dress pants and a striped shirt. The L.A. Kings are playing at home, and as one of eight interns with the team’s communications department, Jablonski has to look professional. He checks himself in a full-length mirror on his way out the door.
Outside, his wheelchair zooms up a ramp and into his family’s accessible van, shipped from Minnesota. His caregiver drives him a mile and a half through relentless traffic on South Figueroa Street, arriving at the Staples Center four hours before game time.
A communications major, Jablonski learned about the internship through his high school hockey coach, Benilde-St. Margaret’s Ken Pauly, who once coached Kelly Cheeseman, the Kings’ chief operating officer.
“He brings a lot to the table,” Cheeseman said. “He’s got hockey knowledge that the other students in the program don’t have.”
That night’s game is against the Calgary Flames, and the interns gather in a cramped office to divide up their duties: Jablonski and another intern would be responsible for the visiting team’s locker room.
The interns ferry lists of lineups and scratches from each team’s locker room to the press boxes and broadcast booths. They distribute sheets that describe precisely what time everything happens in the game’s production: 6:59:00 p.m., pregame warmup begins; 7:28:40, intro video plays, lights out.
After each period, the interns collect statistics from official scorekeepers. After the game, they use their phones to record locker-room press interviews, then transcribe quotes from players and coaches to distribute to media and post on the team’s website.
At the end of the Flames game, Jablonski sits in the middle of three other interns, each concentrating in silence while they listen to headphones and type quotes on their laptops.
“What’s their goalie’s name?” one confused intern asks aloud.
“Ortio,” Jablonski answers immediately. “O-r-t-i-o.”
“I thought it was Ramo,” another intern chimes in.
“He’s injured,” Jablonski says.
“What’s Luke’s position?” intern Vanessa Atler asks a few minutes later.
“Defenseman,” he responds, without missing a beat.
Atler, a public relations graduate from USC, says she often turns to Jablonski if she doesn’t understand hockey lingo.
“He always knows,” she says.
On the sidelines
Jablonski says he hopes to use that knowledge — and stay involved in hockey — in his career someday, either as a broadcast analyst or in team management.
For now, he says, he’s content with his life, considering the circumstances. He has learned that he can make it on his own, and he has confidence he can solve the problems that come his way.
“It’s great because emotionally everything is going well: School is going well, I’m getting good grades, have a great support system of friends and I’ve got a dream internship,” he says.
He knows there will be physical obstacles to whatever he tries, and that sometimes he will fail, but he’ll keep forging ahead. That’s all he can do.
“You can make accommodations and you can try to make it as normal as possible, but at the end of the day, you know, it isn’t,” he said. “You have to accept that and move on.”
Early on a school night, the brothers at Tau Kappa Epsilon are shooting hoops on a half court in the backyard of their side-by-side fraternity houses when Jablonski rolls in through a gate.
“Yo, Jablonski!” one brother greets him, a floodlight illuminating the court.
“How’d you do on that Spanish test?” another asks.
Jablonski, sporting a Twins baseball cap, relishes the atmosphere. He chose that fraternity because it wasn’t “too fratty,” he says. The members love to watch and play sports.
“It’s nice to have a group of guys that will always have your back,” he says.
Finished with basketball, six of the young men migrate to a sand volleyball court to play threes as Jablonski parks his chair on the side. He laughs and pokes fun at their missed spikes and serves as music blares through a 3-foot-tall speaker nearby.
“You can’t always get what you waaant,” he sings along quietly, bobbing his head to the Rolling Stones.
“There you go, Tim!” he yells after an ace kill. “Wooo!”
Overhead, a full moon shines bright. The evening air hovers just shy of room temperature. “It’s, like, beach music … and it’s February,” Jablonski says, still awed by the California seasons.
“But if you try sometimes,” the song plays on. “You just might find, you get what you neeeed.”