Ken Pauly holds a team together to a championship, but the tough part is yet to come.
Ken Pauly told the story again this fall. This time it was to television cameras for CBS, which was giving Jack an award for Courage in Sports.
Pauly had recounted it dozens of times before: How Jack had been hit just the wrong way, how he got a phone call saying it was serious, how he coaxed the team to stick by their fallen player.
This time, Pauly broke down.
"I felt like I had emotions I couldn't control," he said.
He turned the radio off as he drove away from the interview, needing the quiet to think. Last season, Pauly said over and over that he had to figure out a way to move the team forward and bring Jack with them.
This season, he knew, might be harder than the last.
A month after Jack was injured, the team took the ice against Moorhead. It was the Red Knights' ninth game without Jack, but the players saw signs of him everywhere in the stands, on posters and shirts. This night, for a fundraiser, even the players were wearing Jack's jersey -- "Jablonski" stitched on their backs.
Since the hit, Pauly could see his players skating more tentatively, worried about touching another player, as if the bad luck might strike again. He took his place behind the bench, barking commands as his players jumped off and on the ice in waves.
The Red Knights were getting whipped.
Between shifts, Pauly saw players look down at their jerseys. Pauly caught himself yelling: Jablonski, you're up!
He knew he had to find some help.
Days later, the players sat in Pauly's social studies classroom, their eyes fixed on worksheets, racing to find numbers in a matrix.
When they finished, a sports therapist asked: Was that fun? Did you like competing? Did you like winning?
Yes, the players nodded.
Did you feel that you were dishonoring Jack by doing that?
It was OK to continue playing hockey, the therapist told them. They could, in good conscience, move forward while still honoring their friend.
Pauly had never told the boys to play for Jack. To him, that sounded cheap, as if they won then that would somehow make everything OK. Jack was not a lucky rabbit's foot. Jack would need the team well beyond the season.
Pauly talked to players one-on-one about visiting Jack and helping teammates who were having a tough time.
Before games, he gave his usual pep talks: "It is our time. Embrace it! Get after it! Win it! Let's frickin' go," he told them in the locker room before the sectional championship.
No coach could tell a team that winning doesn’t matter, and Pauly was known for — sometimes criticized for — his fiercely competitive side. But deep inside, for the first time in his life, Pauly didn’t care if they won or lost. It was more important that his team handle the tragedy well and not leave Jack behind.
When the Red Knights season ended with the state championship trophy on Jack's lap in the locker room, Pauly told the boys how proud he was of them sticking together. He looked directly at Jack, who was smiling.
"I said, 'Hey, I want you to understand that this is not over and that us being here for you is not over.' "
Over the summer, Pauly stopped by the Jablonskis to drop off some coaching DVDs for Jack to watch. Jack's mom, Leslie, came to the door.
Jack isn't home, she told him. He's out with his hockey buddies.
Pauly left happy.
Pauly donned his Red Knights sweats, laced up his skates and stood at center ice on the first day of hockey tryouts in mid-November. Ready or not, the new season was here.
"Move! Move! Move!" he growled as prospective players competed in drills, many wearing Jablonski patches on their helmets. "Get there! Get there! Hurry up! Hurry up!"
When one player checked another from behind, Pauly lost it: Are you kidding me? he barked. We, of all teams, should know better.
Days later, he took the team's four captains to dinner to discuss the challenges that lie ahead: "You may think you're ready for how hard the season is going to be, but you're not," he told them over pizza. "You're in the limelight for two big reasons: The Jabby thing puts you big time in the limelight, and you're defending state champions."
He lectured about being careful of what they post on Facebook and Twitter. He talked of managing different personalities on a team.
And he talked about how they would have to help figure out Jack's new role with the Red Knights.
The team would be working through the season with Jack the person even though the public might still be cheering Jabby the brand, wearing shirts and pins and wristbands bearing his name.
Pauly told the boys he would navigate it all with them and would bring in a sports therapist to help.
"We've been through something as a team that was beautiful and awful all at once," Pauly said. "The only way the team gets strong is if everyone kind of melds back into the team and gets back to the core of its values."
Pauly reminded them that, when Jack's parents announced the prognosis back in January, they said they would have to adjust to a new life that Jack hadn't planned for.
"This is it, guys," Pauly said. "I think that's what is the challenge for us, is to continue to just embrace him as the person he is and the teammate that he is."
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