The first Minnesota hockey player to be drafted by the National Hockey League last week was Ryan Collins, who went to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, the 47th pick overall.
Then came Jack Dougherty, at number 54, and Jack Glover at pick number 69. Keegan Iverson went to the New York Rangers in the third round. Miguel Fidler was drafted in the fifth round by the Florida Panthers. By the end of the draft, 15 Minnesotans had been chosen and took another step closer to their dreams.
On Wednesday afternoon, one of their biggest fans, Jack Jablonski, sat in his wheelchair outside Courage Center in Golden Valley and talked about his joy in seeing his friends get drafted.
“I was following it all day,” said Jablonski. “I played with all those guys. Four of them are pretty much my best friends. It was definitely a fun day. It was nice to see my friends get rewarded for all their hard work, and because they have been so supportive of me. It’s great to see them take the next step.”
It was a gorgeous day. The sun was shining and Jablonski was in good spirits. He had just finished a physical therapy session and his personal assistant would soon whisk him off to more appointments and then to his afternoon radio gig on Sports Radio 105, the Ticket.
Though his best friends are now pros, Jablonski is probably more well known than any of them, ever since he was paralyzed from the chest down after a hit during a junior varsity hockey game on Dec. 30, 2011. Since then, his spirit and poise have captivated the state, motivated those struggling with disabilities and made him fast friends with hockey legends.
Jablonski was a star player, too, and no doubt would have been among those drafted if he hadn’t been injured. It’s something he’s been well aware of since the beginning.
“It was definitely bittersweet,” Jablonski said of draft day. “Once I was inspired to try to make it to the NHL. To see yourself not being able to be in that situation, well, it was hard.”
“It was a tough day,” said Jack’s dad, Mike Jablonski. “But he’s really happy for them. Some of them go back to grade school.”
Iverson has flown in to see Jack from Portland, Ore., and his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Canadian Hockey League, have provided donations for health care because of Iverson’s friendship with Jack.
Jack’s mother, Leslie, wrote about her feelings on Caring Bridge following the draft:
“It was one of those times when you have a lump in your throat, yet you’re so happy for Jack’s friends,” she wrote. “It was a reality check for us. We initially cried as we watch his hockey dreams come to a crushing halt. But the overwhelming support, amazing opportunities, and incredible people that have penetrated our lives made it all OK.
“But those initial feelings seemed to creep back into my mind and heart this weekend,” she wrote. “As the names of the latest draftees were running across the TV, I looked out the bedroom window and saw Jack sitting on the deck in his power chair, soaking up the sun and gazing into the distance. Reality hit me hard.”
More than two years after the injury, there are still ups and downs. But sitting outside Courage Center, Jablonski noted other clients coming and going, many in worse shape, all of them striving to live full lives. And he focused on the success of his friends. He’s called several to congratulate them since the draft.
Next winter, Jablonski plans to head off to the University of Southern California to take on his next challenge.
“I’m going to be rooting for [my friends] from Day One,” Jablonski said. “With all the help they’ve given me, they really deserve this. I’m thankful for their success and I’m thankful for them.”
Jablonski laughed, then cracked, “I hope they don’t forget me now that they are big shots.”