When Jack Jablonski met his championship teammates in the locker room, "everyone went nuts."
Ken Pauly isn't a big believer in rousing pregame speeches. The Benilde-St. Margaret's coach said that trying to manufacture a poignant moment or a life lesson never rings true with his hockey players -- and besides, his team tends to lose every time he tries to do his best Herb Brooks imitation.
It would have been unnecessary anyway Saturday, when the Red Knights played Hill-Murray for the Class 2A championship at the boys' state high school hockey tournament. Every day of the past 10 weeks has been stuffed with poignant moments and life lessons, since teammate Jack Jablonski was paralyzed by an injury suffered in a hockey game. And every day, the Red Knights felt inspired to work toward the state title they hoped to win -- not just for Jablonski, but for their entire hockey family.
The boys' state tournament always adds fresh memories to Minnesota's rich storehouse of hockey lore. Saturday, those tales of heart-stopping victories, wrenching losses and star turns were trumped by one of the most sentimental finals in its history. With a 5-1 triumph over Hill-Murray, Benilde wrote the storybook ending that seemed too perfect to hope for, too unlikely to come true.
The sophomore forward watched from a suite at Xcel Energy Center, draped in his now-familiar red-and-white blanket. With little brother Max at his side, and family and friends all around, Jablonski cheered along with the students who filled the two sections directly in front of him.
Junior forward Grant Besse provided the firepower, scoring all five goals. Jablonski provided the emotional touchstone for a tightly knit team that grew closer through its love and support for him -- and for each other.
As the final seconds ticked away, the students changed their usual chant. "We believe in miracles'' gave way to "We just saw a miracle," a feeling shared by many of the 17,607 fans who witnessed it.
"It's been emotional," Pauly said. "It's been spiritual. It's been life-changing. I've seen a bunch of guys really grow, in a lot of different ways, in terms of caring about someone else. And not just putting words to it, but putting action to it.
"Considering the situation, we've all just kind of kept going forward. It is a relief and a release all at once."
Pauly had done a masterful job of managing his players' emotions in the days and weeks after Jablonski suffered a spinal injury Dec. 30. Their private grief quickly became public, as thousands of Minnesotans prayed and wept along with them.
Their coach helped them to keep Jablonski in their hearts without allowing their sadness to overcome them. The Red Knights handled an unimaginable situation with uncommon grace, leaving Pauly awestruck by their maturity. Saturday, they honored Jablonski in the most appropriate way possible: by playing their hearts out.
'All 4 Jabs'
The pep band played the theme from "Rocky" shortly before they took the ice. Throughout the game, the Benilde student section gave little nods to Jablonski; many wore T-shirts with his No. 13, and one held a sign that read "All 4 Jabs." In the third period, they counted down as the game clock reached the 13-minute mark, then launched a chant of "We Love Jabby."
With every goal, Jablonski's face lit up as the people surrounding him hugged and hollered. His smile grew even brighter as the clock struck zero and his teammates rushed to goaltender Justin Quale, burying him in an ecstatic pile.
Soon, Jablonski was gone. As the students looked up at his suite, chanting "All For Jabby," he was making his way down to the arena floor. Though state high school league officials would not allow him onto the ice, Jablonski met up with his teammates in the locker room, where Besse said "everyone went nuts."
Pauly has frequently reminded people that the state tournament would not write the end to Jablonski's saga. There will be many more triumphs and tears to come, for Jack and for everyone sharing in his recovery.
Saturday's game did provide a collective release, giving them all the chance to shed some long-awaited tears of happiness. And at some point, the full impact of this heartbreaking, exhilarating season will settle in for all of them.
"It's definitely a dream come true," said Red Knights forward Christian Horn. "I don't really know what to feel or how to put it into words.
"People really wanted to see us win. It shows how close this hockey community is, and how much people really care for one kid."
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