Doctors say hockey player's injury can't be fixed by surgery

As tributes to Jack Jablonski are planned, the teen and his family face a new, daunting future in which he won't be able to walk again.

Jack Jablonski will "not be able to walk or skate" again due to spinal cord injuries the 16-year-old suffered in a hockey collision last week, his family reported Wednesday evening.

"This news is devastating to Jack and everyone who loves him," the Jablonski family posted on their CaringBridge website for the Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore. "Our hope and dream is that he will be able to prove this prognosis wrong. Our priority is to help Jack accept and transition into his new life, a life that we did not plan, but one that we have to embrace."

In a statement issued Thursday morning, the neurosurgeons who operated on Jablonski Wednesday summarized their conclusions, saying that "spinal cord damage of this type is irreparable with surgery" and "often leads to the inability to move the arms and legs."

"Jack is young, strong and determined, and has excellent support from family, friends and the community," said doctors Thomas Bergman and Walter Galicich of Hennepin County Medical Center. "This support is essential to helping him recover from surgery and continue with the therapies he will require when he goes home."

In Wednesday's surgery, doctors had fused two fractured vertebrae in the youth's neck. While the procedure went "very well," according to his family, "it also confirmed that his injury was horrific."

Jablonski was injured in a junior varsity tournament game against Wayzata when he was checked from behind and crashed head-first into the boards. Lying on the ice, Jablonski told his father he couldn't feel anything, but he gained some movement in his shoulders and right arm after being placed in traction and a halo neck brace at HCMC.

In addition to fracturing the two vertebrae, his spinal cord was severed at the C5 level, Dr. Tina Slusher said Monday during a briefing at the hospital. In general, the nerves that control the neck, shoulder muscles and biceps are at or above that level; the nerves controlling forearm, hand and leg muscles below.

On Monday, Slusher described the absence of further movement as "very worrisome," though she allowed for some hope based on Jablonski's youth and strength.

Jablonski and his family have received prayers and good wishes in thousands of Twitter posts and messages on CaringBridge and Facebook websites. The tragedy has evoked heartfelt responses from celebrities as varied as actor Steve Carell, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and Twins pitcher Carl Pavano.

Benilde-St. Margaret's classmates will wear white Thursday in honor of Jablonski. A pond hockey tournament on Lake Minnetonka is scheduled for Jan. 14. The Minneapolis Storm hockey association has created "Jack's Pledge" stickers that players will wear as commitments to safer play.

Benilde and Wayzata hockey players had planned to wear his jersey number, 13, on their uniforms at a varsity game Thursday night, but the game was called off late Wednesday.

The decision followed a meeting of about 100 Benilde-St. Margaret's boys' hockey players and parents at the school's chapel where coach Ken Pauly read a statement from Leslie Jablonski, Jack's mother, about his prognosis. Pauly later said the "emotional meeting" made "everyone aware of the challenges ahead. Guys are not giving up hope for their friend but we're under no illusion about the long fight ahead."

Pauly said he took "the emotional temperature of the room" following the meeting and felt the boys weren't ready to play. The junior varsity rematch with Wayzata had already been canceled.

'Stop' signs

Earlier this week, Wayzata junior varsity coach Duke Johnson said the player who hit Jablonski from behind was distraught. "He's very upset," Johnson said. "[On Monday] at practice he was doing a little better because enough guys have told him, 'You weren't trying to hurt him.'"

Checks from behind are high risk because they can send players flying into the boards. Youth hockey jerseys have "STOP" signs on their backs to discourage such hits. Witnesses said the check on Jablonski wasn't severe or malicious.

The Minnesota State High School League issued a reminder Tuesday against this form of contact on the ice.

The incident has weighed on hockey players and coaches. "You could just kind of feel tonight whenever there was a hit along the boards everybody at the rink was on edge a little bit,'' said Minnetonka coach Brian Urick, whose boys' team played Eagan Tuesday night.

In St. Louis Park, where the incident occurred, players and coaches on the school's boys' team voted to give a game puck to Jablonski after the Orioles' overtime victory against Rogers Tuesday night.

On Monday, Jablonski's parents discussed how their son -- nicknamed Jabby -- loved hockey and would find some way to contribute, whether back on the ice or as an advocate for plyer safety.

That sentiment was echoed on his Facebook support page Wednesday evening, where thousands have checked in to offer their support. "Let's just remember that no matter what happens, Jabby will always ... be the same strong and incredible Jabby that we know and love," the page's author posted Wednesday night. "He is going to do great things."

jeremy.olson@startribune.com • 612-673-7744 dlavaque@startribune.com • 612-673-7574

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