Jack Jablonski exudes confidence in front of the camera, an almost giddy smile on his face as he introduces the latest guest on his online hockey show: former NHL pro Paul Bissonnette, who now works as a TV analyst.
"Welcome back to another episode of 'Tradin' Jabs,' " Jablonski says smoothly, opening the show from Southern California where he interviews everyone from current players to new prospects in his job for the Los Angeles Kings. Then he talks as if Bissonnette is an old friend: "Biz, how ya doin'?"
With the camera focused tightly on Jablonski's face, viewers can't see that he's sitting in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down and needing help with small tasks such as inserting the ear buds he wears during the show.
This was not how Jablonski dreamed of joining the pros as a boy skating in rinks all over the Twin Cities. But now, 10 years after he suffered a broken spine in a Minnesota high school hockey tournament, he has forged a different path into the NHL. He relishes his new role as an insider in the sport that both shattered him and helped him build a new life.
"I think if you would have asked me ... where could you see yourself in 10 years as I was in the hospital ... I couldn't have asked for a better possible situation than I am in right now," he said in an interview, acknowledging the large cast of supporters helping him along the way.
Of course, Jablonski would give anything to take back that moment on Dec. 30, 2011, when a body check sent him crashing head-first into the boards. But now, at 26, he has learned to make the most of the things he can control.
Jablonski works full time, helped coach youth hockey and speaks out as an advocate and fundraiser for paralysis research through a foundation bearing his name. He keeps his muscles strong with regular physical therapy, and he has been enrolled in a clinical study with hopes of getting some movement back in his fingers so he can gain more independence.
"Work life is great. Social life is good," Jablonski said. "I'm just happy to be able to be a functioning adult that can contribute to society and can contribute to an NHL organization."
Orchestrating his days
For nearly every home game, Jablonski uses a joystick-like control on his motorized wheelchair to roll into the Staples Center — newly renamed Crypto.com Arena — ready to analyze the game he loves.
From up in the press box, he hunches his shoulder to move his arm and wrist, quickly typing laptop keys with his pinky knuckle, updating the Kings' website with game highlights.
After the final buzzer sounds, Jablonski wheels into an elevator and down into the bowels of the arena, where he joins a scrum of reporters in the locker room to ask questions for post-game interviews. Later, he writes a game recap for the website.
With an official title of associate digital media content specialist, Jablonski has been working a hybrid schedule for the Kings during the pandemic — some days at home and others in the team's El Segundo offices. He researches players and prospects, records video interviews and writes feature stories for the team's website on his iPhone.
Jablonski and a full-time caregiver moved into a small, accessible apartment in Hermosa Beach — not far from team headquarters — shortly after he graduated from the University of Southern California.
He has learned to schedule his days carefully in advance, knowing his injury makes last-minute changes complicated. The caregiver helps him get out of bed, get dressed and eat. There are medications and other extra needs that require attention every day. And he has to figure out who can drive his specially equipped van if his caregiver is busy.
Besides navigating bills and insurance and everything else that comes with adulthood, Jablonski mixes in three physical therapy sessions each week. Sometimes therapists move his legs while he stands harnessed atop a treadmill; other times they stretch and work his arms, all with the goal of keeping his muscles strong.
Like everyone else, he has also learned to navigate outside problems that the world throws at him.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit just after he moved away from his network of college friends. During lockdown, he frequently sat in a patch of sun in his 12-unit apartment building's small courtyard, where he pushed himself to greet his neighbors. He knew from college that strangers can be uncomfortable around his wheelchair, so he was deliberate about getting to know people. His neighbors became a new circle of friends.
"When people see who Jack is, then he becomes more confident," said his mom, Leslie Jablonski.
And while the warm California air is good for Jablonski's body, which doesn't easily regulate temperature, it was difficult for him to live halfway across the country when his mom faced a difficult health scare of her own; cancer spread rapidly from her eyelid into her eye socket in 2020.
Jablonski called his mom frequently, trying to give her the encouragement that she gave him during so many dark days 10 years ago. Channel your energy away from worrying, he told her. Focus on treatments and healing.
She's OK now, and the whole family is grateful.
"Having been through hell and back personally, I felt like I was able to kind of help my mom keep a positive mindset," he said.
Now he wants to lend support to other paralysis patients everywhere.
Jack's voice boomed over a crowd of supporters at his foundation's annual gala in fall 2019 — his first as the evening's main speaker.
"You've heard a lot about me over the last eight years, but so far you haven't heard a lot from me," he said as part of a recorded introduction. "I feel it's time."
"That's when I noticed that things changed," said Robert Dollarhide, the foundation board's vice president and a longtime family friend.
Up until then, Jablonski had gone to fundraisers and other public events, but he was shy about the attention. Thrust into the spotlight after his injury, he was grateful for an outpouring of support that sustained him, but he sometimes felt compelled to stay upbeat despite bouts of depression. High school sports teams held events in his honor. Professional sports figures visited his hospital room. His story was a frequent feature on social media and local news.
Family friends formed what is now the Jack Jablonski Foundation less than a year after his injury to raise money for research. While he used to defer to the adults around him, board members said he now gives his opinion on fundraising strategies and asks questions about studies, wanting to make sure money goes to the most-promising research.
Foundation board member Dr. Anne Moore, who served as the doctor for Jablonski's high school team, said she has seen him become more introspective.
While he still hopes to walk one day, he now can "appreciate smaller goals along the way and still strive for those big ones," Moore said. "I think he is much more comfortable in his skin. He's done a lot of soul searching."
Jablonski says he sees that he can do a lot of good by using his public platform.
"Having a voice that so many people with paralysis don't is such a fortunate opportunity," he said. "I've matured and grown up and I've kind of realized that a little bit more."
So at the 2019 gala, he took the stage to advocate and explain research the foundation was helping to fund: putting electrodes on the skin at the spine to stimulate the upper body and gain back some movement.
"I cannot use my hands to open a door. I cannot use a cup. Can't use a fork," he told the crowd sitting at round dinner tables at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "I need to get my hands working again, and so do hundreds of thousands of other people living with quadriplegia just like me."
The first of a two-part study saw various quadriplegic people drink water out of a cup, turn keys, or put a card into a cash machine. Jablonski has been accepted into the study, too. He'll be in the second phase, which he hopes to begin in January.
"If you were to ask anyone with quadriplegia ... the first thing that they'll ask and want back is independence and hands — hand function," Jablonski said recently. "And that's the answer for me, too."
Meanwhile, Jablonski said he'll keep doing what he can to move forward.
Someday, he might want to became part of a team's hockey operations, he said, describing how it would be fun to help place players and figure out roster moves. But his injury has taught him not to live "too far into the future," he said. He knows all too acutely that things can change in an instant.
"You never know what's going to happen. ... I think it's a matter of focusing on now and making sure that I'm staying healthy and I'm being active and I'm in a good place mentally," he said. "You just have to focus on what you can control."