Benilde-St. Margaret's players salute their fans on Saturday, Jan. 7, as they played their first game since teammate Jack Jablonski suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Photo by Adam Crane
Television camera crews and photographers lined the boards at the St. Louis Park Rec Center long before Benilde-St. Margaret’s varsity players arrived for their game against St. Louis Park on Saturday, Jan. 7.
Near the entrance to the rink, tables were being set up to display the contents of as yet unloaded boxes of fundraising merchandise.
One by one, students clad in white and toting signs featuring the number “13” took their place in the stands as the arena slowly swelled past capacity.
There was no question of who this game and this night would be dedicated to.
Almost as quick as the hit that caused a paralyzing spinal cord injury to Red Knights’ sophomore Jack Jablonski, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Jablonski himself became a household name in Minnesota and the nationwide hockey community.
Red Knights coach Ken Pauly allowed MN Hockey Hub staff reporter Michael Murakami and photographer Adam Crane exclusive access to the Benilde-St. Margaret’s players, locker room and bench for the emotion-filled day.
Murakami shares his experience from behind the scenes:
Benilde-St. Margaret's fans show their support for injured player Jack Jablonski. Photo by Adam Crane
My afternoon began at the fundraising table filled with merchandise to support Jack. Mothers of the Red Knights’ varsity captains and several volunteers were busy getting set up.
Buttons with "Jack Jablonski; In Our Hearts" and Jack’s number 13 were selling for $5 next to mittens selling for $50. Both items would be sold out before the night ended.
As I left the tables, television crews were setting up their cameras to interview the mothers working the table and showing their support for Jack and Leslie Jablonski, Jack’s parents.
From there it was on to the Benilde-St. Margaret’s locker room, where it was impossible not to notice Jack’s jersey hanging near the door. Walking down the ramp towards the lockers, I passed stick after stick with “13”, “Jabs” and “Jabby” written on the knobs.
Senior captain Christian Horn made his way into the locker room carrying a box with a full shield protective mask for Benilde-St. Margaret’s new off-white helmets. Though originally upset that he couldn’t find a full facemask, after trying on his new ‘bucket’ Horn concluded he could pull the look off.
Though the scene outside the locker room had anything but a normal feel, the Red Knights’ pregame locker room activities were carrying on as usual. Players were listening to music and joking around with each other.
There were, however, several new wrinkles to the pregame routine. Each player took turns signing a No. 13 jersey before peeling off a “13” sticker and placing it on their helmets. And when each player had finished re-taping his stick, more messages and tributes to Jack were added as a final touch.
Eager to get a long-standing pregame tradition underway, Red Knights senior captain Jake Horton called for all the varsity players to get ready as he grabbed a ball and headed to an open area near the Benilde-St. Margaret’s locker room. Receiving attention from St. Louis Park players and spectators alike, the Red Knights started their typical and intense soccer game to warm up for the night’s game.
When all the sticks were taped and the soccer game was over, the players headed upstairs toward the back of the Rec Center to start calisthenics -- some sporting their new Jack Jablonski mittens -- before heading back to the locker room to get dressed.
The Red Knights filed into small team room for a pregame discussion. New patches were stitched on their jerseys in honor of Jack. Coach Pauly started the meeting by telling his young team to, “keep it simple”.
Max Jablonski, Jack Jablonski's younger brother, is escorted on the ice for the pregame ceremonies on Jan. 7. Photo by Adam Crane
Pauly stressed the importance of the Red Knights playing “their game” and playing in honor of Jack. Then, Pauly announced the starting lineup, defensive pairings and a breakdown of each line -- each number he read received an “ooh” from the team.
Each player touched Jack’s jersey as the Red Knights’ left the locker room, walking through a gauntlet of fans who offered the players supportive high fives as they took the ice. Though only skating out for warmups, Benilde-St. Margaret’s was met with a loud roar of applause.
While the team warmed up, Leslie Jablonski was being ushered into a Rec Center conference room for a pregame statement. She was surrounded by family friends and followed by a string of cameramen, photographers, reporters and journalists.
During the media session, Leslie described how Jack had moved both arms on command -- something, she said, was thought to be impossible based on where Jack had severed his spinal cord. Leslie said Jack’s doctor told Jack he had made his day and “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, including Jack.”
Apparently not one for tears, Jack immediately lightened the mood by asking when he could lace his skates up again.
Downstairs Pauly was delivering a passionate speech. He told his players how Jack had regained movement in his arms, that Jack was battling every day and that they would honor Jack by battling every shift on the ice.
Shellshocked after hearing the amazing news, the players turned the lights off, got down on one knee and then took each other’s hands to say a prayer.
Some teams take the ice for the start of a game to the school’s fight song or a song on the top-40 charts, but on this night the Red Knights skated out to “Stolen” by Dashboard Confessional. The chorus of the song repeats the lyric; “You have stolen my heart” -- a fitting phrase as Max Jablonski, Jack’s younger brother, skated onto the ice wearing the number 13 jersey autographed earlier by the Red Knights.
After the Benilde-St. Margaret’s starting lineup was announced, Max was announced as an honorary member of the Red Knights’ varsity team. As he skated to join the starters, the crowd erupted into the loudest round of applause of the night.
Max joined his new teammates by bowing his head during a 13-second moment of silence for Jack, then left the ice to watch the game with his friends.
Clearly ready to resume hockey, Benilde-St. Margaret’s scored four goals in the first period -- with the first goal coming with just over 13:00 showing on the clock.
As the players scored, they acknowledged the patch on their jerseys. The Red Knights led 6-0 after two periods.
Jack Jablonski's jersey hangs near the entrance to the Benilde-St. Margaret's locker room. Photo by Adam Crane
By Minnesota State High School League rule, a game will be played with running time in the third period if a team leads by six or more goals. Knowing this, Pauly approached St. Louis Park coach Shjon Podein with an idea to play the third period with the scoreboard showing a 13-13 tie.
Instead of using the now-overused student section anthem; "I believe that we will win", the Benilde-St. Margaret's fans celebrated as time expired by chanting; "I believe in miracles".
Back inside the locker room following the 7-0 victory, Pauly gave the game puck to Max. Almost immediately, plans to visit Jack started circulating in the locker room.
The team plans to wear the patches and stickers on its helmets for the rest of the season.
While fans shuffled out of the Rec Center, players and coaches were thrown in front of an army of television cameras as reporters fired off question after question. The interviews made the evening news but it was the players' well-spoken answers that headlined the informal postgame media session.
One by one, each Benilde-St. Margaret’s player left the locker room with a smile on his face, knowing he had honored his friend and teammate.
But not before one last touch of Jack’s jersey -- until next time.
Both coaches agreed to have the score read 13-13 in the third period of Benilde-St. Margaret's 7-0 victory over St. Louis Park. Photo by Adam Crane