Jack Jablonski: After the hit

  • By: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2013 - 3:12 PM

Now 17, Jack powers though his injury with determination and hope.

With tacos, a cake, hockey buddies and family, Jack Jablonski celebrated his 17th birthday at home, one of the many milestones since the hit that paralyzed the teen.

Stories by Pam Louwagie  |  Photographs by Carlos Gonzalez

A hit during a high school hockey game
late last year sent Jack Jablonski into the boards. In that instant, Jablonski’s spinal cord was damaged and he slid to the ice, paralyzed.

His life was forever changed, as were the lives of his parents and friends, his coaches and teammates, the young player who hit him. Communities hosted fund-raisers. Hockey parents demanded the sport be made safer.

Now, as high school hockey season begins in Minnesota, the echoes of that hit still reverberate.

The pedals on the stationary bike rotate in smooth circles, methodically pushing and pulling Jack Jablonski's paralyzed legs.

Wires from 20 electrodes dangle from his legs and trunk, stimulating his muscles, keeping them strong and trying to remind them of how things used to be.

Jack needs no such reminders.

He hates that word: Paralyzed. It's been 11 months since he damaged his spinal cord in the hockey rink, robbing him of movement from the chest down. It was an accident that has affected friends and strangers in deeply personal ways that even Jack doesn't fully understand.

Jack still doesn't see himself as disabled. At 17, he can't help but believe that technology and medical breakthroughs will fix it all someday. He wants his body to be ready.

As the pedals turn, he stares at a computer screen. It shows a long, isolated road, the skyline of a cartoon metropolis in the distance. He thinks about his teammates gliding across glassy ice, ripping pucks into nets and driving toward their hockey dreams like he once did.

Jack is driving toward a different dream now. With each pump on the bike, the screen shows a center-line stripe in the road flip by, as if he is pedaling closer to the city. But the skyline never moves.

"You try to bike to a town," he says, frustrated, "but it never gets closer."

Jack is determined to get closer.

He remembers screaming.

Pain pulsed through his neck as he hit the boards head first, then fell to the ice on his side.

Let's try to get you up on the count of three, he heard.

One ... two ....

You don't get it, he remembers saying, panic stealing his breath. I can't move. I can't feel my body.

For weeks, Jack lay flat on his back in a darkened hospital room, his neck stretched stiff by a halo brace fastened to his forehead with screws.

Pain meds blurred the first days, but somehow he knew the prognosis.

He couldn't believe what was going on around him. Wayne Gretzky and his favorite NHL player, Pavel Datsyuk, were calling his family. There were so many visitors that they came in shifts: hockey buddies, classmates, coaches, parents, college players, professional sports stars. They filled his room with jerseys and flowers and food.

At first, he wasn't sure how to react. Suddenly, he had thousands of Twitter followers and kept hearing his story on television, which he strained to see out of the corner of his eye.

He could only try to return the good feelings. As visitors bent over his bed to look him in the face, Jack smiled at each of them. He asked his teammates about practices. He cracked jokes. He thanked people profusely.

"Thanks, Kate. Thank you for everything. I'll be snacking on the banana bread later, don't worry about that," he told a family friend.

Jack's visitors left his room feeling better. With all their support, he felt optimistic, too.

In mid-January, a physical therapist stood at Jack's bedside, slowly lifting his arm, working to increase the strength and movement in his shoulder. It was one of Jack's first arm therapy sessions.

"We're going for that shrug," she told him. Lift them up. Slide them down.

"This is all coming from up at the shoulder, this is not the hands," she said. "That's how you learn how to drive your wheelchai..."

"Stop!" Jack cut her off.

"I know I said a bad word," she answered softly.

At the end of February, Jack left the hospital for a few hours at a time to watch his team in the playoffs.

Before the games, he parked his wheelchair in the corner of the locker room and prayed with the team. From the stands, he recognized plays that he had practiced with his squad, anticipating passes and shots.

At the section championship game, he cheered from behind the glass at Mariucci Arena. As the clock wound down, with his team about to secure a spot in the state tournament, Jack's dad, Mike, suggested he go onto the ice to celebrate with his buddies.

Jack said no. He felt self-conscious. He didn't want to go out there, in front of thousands, in a wheelchair.

At the final buzzer, the players threw their sticks and helmets into the air in joy. A Red Knight coach told Jack he would walk out with him as the Zamboni door opened. The team rushed to surround him.

As the wheels of his chair rolled across the ice, the fans stood and chanted his name. "Jab-by! Jaby-by!" A smile spread across his face.

Jack spent the first day of the state tournament in a rehab kitchen, helping his mother make Swedish meatballs.

Therapists coaxed him to roll the raw balls around in a plate of flour. The fingers on his hand curled under, all he could do was push the meatballs from side to side. Puffs of flour spilled onto the floor.

"Mom, I don't think this is gonna be my specialty," he said. "Do you remember how much of a mess I made without this problem?"

They ate in the break room, a dish towel across Jack's lap, a specially bent spoon fitted to his hand. A therapist loaded meatball bites onto the spoon.

Jack slowly raised his shaky right arm. As the spoon reached his chin, the pieces fell, streaking the towel with brown gravy and rolling to the floor. He sighed and tried again.

Over and over, just as his arm got high enough, his hand jerked and the meatballs fell.

All he could do was laugh.

Laughing made people relax, Jack noticed.

During rehab exercises at Courage Center, he teased a pregnant therapist about naming her child after him. "Baby Jack. Right there. It's gonna be a boy," he grinned.

He and the trainers kept score on how many scuffs each of them put on his new shoes while moving his legs on a treadmill. "Don't worry, Holly," he told one. "Jose took a commanding lead: three scuffs."

When his competitive friends talked about their hockey prowess, Jack fired back with a smile, asking them how many Twitter followers they had (he has more than 50,600), or how many signed NHL jerseys (43, by his brother Max's count).

When they complained about broken bones or sore muscles, then paused awkwardly realizing what they'd said, Jack broke the tension: Dude, at least you can feel it.

"I joke about my injury a lot," he said later. "It lightens things. I think it makes them feel that I'm not, like, soft about it."

On the first day of school, Jack rolled into the front door of Benilde-St. Margaret's along with the rest of the junior class.

He quickly found a new routine, leaving class five minutes before the halls fill with students sprung by the bell.

In each class, a designated buddy sits next to him, fetching books from the backpack attached to his chair, sharing notes, giving him a sip of water. Max, who moved to the school this year as an eighth-grader, is a few steps away if Jack needs him in a pinch.

Jack uses an iPad, typing with the pinky finger knuckle on his loosely fisted right hand.

At lunch, he cruised into the noisy cafeteria and pulled up to the head of the long table where his teammates sit every day. One of the guys grabbed an extra lunch tray and lifted forks of food to Jack's mouth.

It was awkward, at first, asking his buddies to help him eat and drink. But some of his friends just started offering. Students passed Jack without seeming to notice him, though some wear products of last year's many fundraisers -- shirts emblazoned with his name or jersey number, tie-dyed wristbands printed with "Believe," the theme that surrounds him.

But when Benilde students voted for Jack to be a homecoming attendant this fall, he turned it down.

"I'm not ready for that," he said later. "Going up in front of everybody like this ... I want to be in a better state ... I didn't want to have to face everyone like that."

It'll be hard for Jack to watch his teammates play this year. He'll see kids he used to compete with -- kids he believed he could beat -- and it'll hurt that they're on the ice and he's not.

"It will be tough," he said. "I have to get over it somehow."

As hockey tryouts approached in mid-November, coach Ken Pauly arrived at the Jablonskis' door in a Red Knights sweat shirt, ready to meet with his new student assistant coach.

"We want to establish that you're part of this. You're coaching with me," Pauly said, perched on a kitchen stool.

Jack would concentrate on the power play, and his first suggestion was to show the team videos of great NHL power plays. "Show them exactly what we like about it and how we want ours to look like compared to that," Jack said as Pauly took notes.

Jack was relieved to hear he won't decide who plays. It'll be strange enough for him to point out what his peers are doing well and what they aren't.

"Looking up to a guy that I wanted to play like ... and all of a sudden you're telling him what to do and he's older than you ... it's gonna be odd," he said. "I guess I'm going to have to earn my respect."

Jack will miss most practices because of his rehab schedule. But he could watch games, watch film, offer observations.

He could be involved as much or as little as he wanted to, Pauly told him. "I'd like to have you around."

At Courage Center after school, as his team sweats on the ice during practice, Jack is working to gain strength in his core. He is moving more of his arms than what the family was first led to believe, and he sometimes has flashes of feeling in his legs, though nobody is sure what to make of it.

Jack often begins his sessions with four trainers strapping him into a harness and hoisting him into a standing position atop a treadmill. One holds his hips. Two others hold his ankles and knees.

"Treadmill on in 3, 2, 1" another one says.

When the machine's belt starts, they move his legs in a walking motion, bending his ankles, lifting his feet up and pushing them down in deliberate steps.

Jack swings his arms like he used to -- a gait he once took for granted.

He loves it.

On the machine, Jack feels free, like he's one step closer to walking.

Editor’s note: Quotes within quotations marks were spoken in the presence of a Star Tribune reporter. Recollected quotes appear without quotation marks.

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