ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. - The eight jerseys hung against the glass at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center, bright red with white piping and names on the back. Those names won't be forgotten anytime soon in this bustling Twin Cities suburb.
It was senior night Tuesday at Benilde-St. Margaret's School, a small private school 15 minutes west of downtown Minneapolis. Here, those names will go down as a group that not only won a state championship as juniors, but came back to defend that title this season as seniors.
To Jack Jablonski, those eight names mean strength, commitment, friendship and family.
"I've become so close to these guys," Jablonski said. "They've been such a tremendous help. They mean so much to me, they're willing to do anything for me. Losing these guys is going to be real tough, they're unbelievable. I don't know what I'm going to without them next year."
It's been almost 14 months since Jablonski damaged his spinal cord while playing with Benilde-St. Margaret's junior varsity team and one can't help but think of next year, when Jablonski will be honored on senior night. What lies in store for him and where he goes in his recovery is still a mystery.
"It'll be tough," Jablonski said. "Leaving this team and leaving this high school is going to be tough. It'll be very emotional knowing everything this program and the school has done for me."
It was during a junior varsity game last December when this journey began for Jack. He was hit from behind into the boards, severing his spinal cord and fracturing two vertebrae. Doctors have said he will never walk again, a fact the guy classmates call "Jabs" or "Jabby" refuses to accept.
The event changed Jablonski's life forever. The 17-year-old high school junior is confined to a wheel chair; hoping for, working for and praying for the day when he will walk once again.
But why stop there?
Jablonski says his ultimate goal is to get back on skates. The fire of a hockey player still burns inside him.
Still, he finishes every answer to every question -- even the hard ones -- with a smile on his face. He's honest and realistic about his situation, but refuses to ever close the door on, well, anything.
"The doctors have done everything they can for me," Jablonski said. "Only God knows what happens from here."
In the ensuing months after the accident, Jablonski's story gained national attention. From all corners of the country, letters of support rolled in. National Hockey League teams that came to play the Minnesota Wild would stop in and visit. Jablonski's favorite player, Pavel Datsyuk, called in to support him, as did Wayne Gretzky.
But perhaps more than any other group, the Minnesota hockey community rallied behind Jablonski in an effort to raise money and awareness while making the game safer for kids of all ages. It was that support, Jablonski said, that snapped him out of any funk he may have felt in the days following the accident.
"It motivated me to prove the doctors wrong," Jablonski said. "I wanted to show them I could do it and show anyone else they can do it, as long as they believe."
And while Jack isn't walking (yet), he's made more progress in 14 months than many doctors predicted he ever would.
He's activated muscles in his lower body by doing treadmill work almost daily. Toes, ankles, gluts, quads, hamstrings -- all progress being made towards that final goal.
"It's very positive. This was never expected and I've been able to surpass it so quickly," Jablonski said.
Through it all, Jablonski has been a fixture with his high school team. Knights coach Ken Pauly wanted Jack to be involved with the team this year, but not simply as a manager. So he had Jack join him as a student-assistant coach. Jack's main responsibility is helping to run the team's power play, which he proudly announced was buzzing somewhere in the 90 percent range.
"Jack has a real good eye for the game. Before the injury, he was a terrific player. Guys who are really good players see things that other people don't see," Pauly said. "Since his injury, he can just focus on those things like a laser beam. Jack is very much a part of our family and our team. I like valuable and talented people and Jack brings that."
Eventually, Jablonski said he'd like to be either a coach or a broadcaster, so long as it involves the game he loves. But until then, Jablonski is focused on helping his hockey family defend a section title and a state championship. It's a senior group, he says, that is always going to be very special to him.
Like any good hockey coach, Jablonski is only worried about this season. But it's intriguing to think about where his determination to beat his condition may bring him long after his own senior night, which is only one year away.
In that regard, this junior is already talking like a savvy veteran.
"I hope not to shed any tears," Jablonski said. "But when you're a senior, there's no turning back."
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