A crew from the NBC Sports Network was at a Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys hockey game last week, and everything was business as usual. A camera operator, sound technician and producer followed one former Red Knights player everywhere he went, preparing a segment that will air on the national network. Nobody batted an eye, because that sort of attention has become commonplace for the Red Knights.
The ex-player, of course, is Jack Jablonski. Everyone knows about Jack’s spinal injury last season, which is the reason he now gets around in a motorized wheelchair. Jack is a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, the school in St. Louis Park that produced last season’s state championship boys hockey team.
We know about Jack’s injury. We also remember the star-studded performance of the Red Knights’ Grant Besse in the Class 2A championship game at Xcel Energy Center, when he did all the scoring in a 5-1 victory over Hill-Murray. We remember those things. But what has changed? What kind of impact have Jack’s injury and the state title had on the current team and others at the school?
“It’s tough, because we had so many ups and downs last season,” said Besse, now a senior. “When you think of one it kind of brings up the other.”
Indeed, Jablonski’s spinal injury, Besse’s big game and the Red Knights’ championship will forever be intertwined in history. But there are also lessons in these things.
“People are very appreciative of what they have,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s athletic director Jerry Pettinger said, reflecting on the last year. “People are very thankful for all the good opportunities and things they have. It’s well appreciated. I think people appreciate their classmates, their friends, teachers, coaches and a caring faculty.”
Jablonski’s title this season is Student Assistant Coach. Red Knights head coach Ken Pauly asked Jack to concentrate on the team’s power play, and that’s what the young coach does during every game. He watches the power play and makes notes that will be used during practices and meetings.
“I work a lot with the power play and certain roles with the forwards, on things we can do to improve,” Jablonski said. “I go to practice one or two days a week and all the games, and I work on the power play strategies; what they do, what we do.
“I’d rather be playing but it’s the next best thing. It’s all I can ask for. I’m definitely happy that I’m working with the team as much as possible.”
Pauly admits that he is still processing the experiences of last season, but he knows that what happened to Jack is something that will have far-reaching implications.
“You tell guys, ‘This is fun, this is great, we love the competition, but there is life beyond all of this,’ ” Pauly said. “Clearly Jack’s thing is tragic. One thing that we’re watching now is him basically demonstrating ‘You know what? There’s life beyond this, too.’ As I process it, I’m hoping it gives everyone perspective. There are things you do with yourself and with your life that don’t involve skating around on a rink. And we all know that, but do we really know it?
“I think Jack’s a living embodiment of it, and of course he’s a dramatic example of courage and keeping an incredible attitude. And his story hasn’t been completely told; he’s a young man.”
Jack still has a locker in the team room at the St. Louis Park Rec Center, although the Red Knights no longer have stickers with his number 13 on their helmets or similar patches on their uniforms, as they did after his injury last season. It’s all part of the process of moving on with life as well as hockey.
Before the season began, Pauly talked with the team about the challenges that this season would present.
“Last year we felt that there were two tracks; there was the hockey track and there was the Jabby track. And we still have that,” Pauly said. “That’s something we talked to the captains about right away: ‘We’re defending state champs and you guys think you’re prepared for that but you’re not. You never are, you cannot be.’ That’s just the way it is. The second challenge was how do we continue to embrace Jack as the teammate that he is and treat it as something that’s authentic.
“The role that he has on the team this year, as a student assistant coach, is an authentic thing. That’s not a made-up role. He’s not a mascot, he’s doing real things. He breaks down tape, he’s looking for specific things, and he’s got a coach’s eye. He has a great mind for the game and he’ll continue to get better at that. … He gets out his iPad and sits down with some of the guys on the power play and they go to work.”
Besse said of Jablonski, “He sees all the little nuances of the game that we don’t see on the ice. He’s got an eye for the game and it’s really starting to show.”
Ask Pauly or Besse about last year’s state championship game and they are likely to smile and shake their head in disbelief all these months later. It was an unbelievable way to end a season that was memorable for reasons that go far beyond hockey.
“No matter what happens it will probably always be the top moment in my hockey career,” said Besse, who will play college hockey at Wisconsin. “You hear these NHL stars saying that winning a high school state championship was the best thing that ever happened to them. And with everything we went though with Jack, that just creates a memory you’ll never forget. And you wouldn’t want to forget. Coming together as a team, getting closer to Jack through all of it, it was a good experience but it’s still hard to think about because of everything that happened.”
Pauly agreed that it will be very hard for Besse to match what he did against Hill-Murray 11 months ago. And that’s just fine.
“What stands out to me,” Pauly said, “is that coaches dream and players make coaches’ dreams come true. The fact is that championships and great moments belong to great kids. That’s a great example of a player who has incredible abilities basically keeping that date with destiny, keeping that appointment. When those things come together it’s magical.
“Clearly there have a been a lot of great players who have come through that tournament, and that was Grant’s moment. He’ll have other moments coming down the pike, but I don’t know if he’ll ever have one like that. As I reflect on that, it was the perfect combination of ‘Here’s the moment, and the player who has that ability.’ Given everything that was swirling around that, the emotion, at the end of the day you need to have some guy step up and say, ‘I’m taking charge.’ And that’s what he did. You can’t coach that.”
The Red Knights are nearing the end of the regular season; with two games remaining they are 18-5 and ranked No.2 behind Hill-Murray in Class 2A. The memories of last season remain, and the lessons continue to be learned.
“It’s still here but in a different way,” Pauly said. “Last year there was an incredible tragedy, and now you’re in a reactive, moving-on mode. Now we’re trying to make it part of our lives. Jack’s still a student at BSM, he’s part of our program, he’ll be with us for the next two years. He’s part of this forever.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 431
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 6,282
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
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