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Hockey world rallies around Jack Jablonski

by Tal Pinchevsky

"I've been to five of my brother Bobby's weddings and 2,000 banquets. I don't see anyone in a white dress here, so it must be a banquet."

It's a joke that Dennis Hull, brother of Bobby and uncle of Brett, typically opens with at most of the events he attends as a spokesman and master of ceremonies. But Hull couldn't use it Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., when he presided over a special gala in which close to 1,000 guests and volunteers dressed all in white to honor and raise money for Minnesota high school hockey player Jack Jablonski, 16, who was paralyzed in a junior-varsity game Dec. 30, 2011.

"You guys ruined my opening joke," Hull said to open the evening. "There are about 200 white dresses here."

That change to Hull's opening remarks was only the start of what was a memorable evening. The BEL13VE in Miracles gala, a fundraiser organized by Jablonski's BEL13VERS Fund, raised money through ticket sales and a silent auction featuring a number of items, including an authentic jersey from the 1980 U.S. Olympic team autographed by its players. Initially expected to draw about 500 people, the event drew more than 800 guests, including 40 former and current NHL players.

"Dennis Hull said he's been to over 2,000 banquets and it's the best one he's ever been to," said former NHL player and general manager Lou Nanne, who attended the event and is actively involved in the BEL13VERS Fund. "Jeremy Roenick flew in and took a big part in it. Just an unbelievable deal for this kid."

Since sustaining his injuries seven months ago, Jablonski has become an inspiration throughout the hockey world.

Almost immediately following the injury, the Jablonskis received a phone call from Minnesota native and NHL star Zach Parise. Then Steven Stamkos called, promising to score a goal to honor Jablonski. Eventually Wayne Gretzky called, and visiting NHL teams met with Jack in the hospital before their games against the Wild, who just three weeks after the accident announced that the annual Hockey Day in Minnesota festivities would be staged in his honor. Within weeks of the injury, the entire hockey world was rallying around the Jablonskis, culminating in Thursday's gala.

"The Minnesota Wild couldn't do enough to help make that happen," said John Reilly, a representative of the BEL13VERS Fund. "It was their house and they were the perfect host."

It wasn't the first time the Wild had helped Jablonski. When his high school, Benilde-St. Margaret's, competed in the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center in March, Jablonski was the guest of honor in the suite of Wild owner Craig Leipold. But the halo brace Jablonski had to wear constricted his neck movement, making it difficult to follow the action from the center-ice suite. Leipold switched boxes with another suite owner, moving behind one of the nets to allow Jablonski an easier time following the action. Just three months after Jablonski's accident, Benilde-St. Margaret's won the 2A state title, elevating Jablonski's story to legendary status. But the most inspiring developments were yet to come.

Before the gala Thursday, Jablonski hosted a hockey clinic on the same ice surface where his accident occurred. Back on the ice for the first time since sustaining his injury, Jablonski wheeled around in his specialized wheelchair and casually moved his arms and hands. Later that day, Jack's mother Leslie revealed that her son also had moved his legs. In a video played during the gala, Jablonski was shown rehabbing at the Courage Center, a Minnesota-based rehabilitation center that is part of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In the videotaped session, the young man who once was told he never would walk again was shown taking steps on a treadmill with the help of a specialized harness and a few staff members.

"We're showing Jack the warrior. He's fighting for his dream to skate again," Reilly told "It's remarkable. This is a boy who wasn't supposed to be able to move his shoulders. He's doing amazing things."

And the hockey world appears determined to be there along the way, demonstrating how tragic events can galvanize a community.

"Hockey's a tight community," Reilly said. "The number of emails and notes going to Jack from [NHL] players was absolutely incredible. I am not from the world of hockey. But In 25 years of working in [philanthropy], I've never seen anything like it."

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