Well-wishers crowded into Jack Jablonski's hospital room and lit up his Facebook and CaringBridge pages all weekend as the high school sophomore and his family awaited a prognosis on a paralyzing injury he suffered during a hockey game on Friday.
"It's a parent's worst nightmare," his father, Mike Jablonski of Minneapolis, said on Sunday in the pediatric intensive care unit at Hennepin County Medical Center. "He dropped and didn't move. Right then and there I knew that my son, that there was something seriously wrong."
Known as "Jabby" to his friends, the 16-year-old honors student, hockey forward and varsity tennis player at Benilde-St. Margaret's scored the first goal of what would be a victory for the junior varsity Red Knights against Wayzata during the Holiday Hockey Classic tournament at the St. Louis Park Recreation Center.
Jack's team was up by one goal 5 minutes, 48 seconds into the second period when he made a dash for the puck near the end boards with two Wayzata players in hot pursuit, said Chris McGowan, the Red Knights' JV coach.
McGowan said two players rammed Jablonski from behind, smashing him into the boards, and he collapsed motionless to the ice.
Jack is in critical condition with two fractured bones in his lower neck. He's unable to move his legs and has only slight movement in his hands and fingers, McGowan said.
"He is a first-class kid. Definitely one of my favorite players in the program," he said. "It's team-first with him for everything. He's what I call a very high-end hockey player, too. And he's got an incredible hockey future ahead of him as well, assuming this all works out."
Doctors suspect that Jack suffered a bruised spinal cord and won't speculate about his recovery until the swelling reduces, his parents said. Once that happens, surgeons expect to fuse the two broken vertebrae, they added.
Outpouring of support
More than 40 people visited Jack on Saturday, and the string of visitors was still going strong Sunday afternoon. Sue Skinner, his high school principal, was among the visitors. Jack has been surrounded by teammates and hockey players from around the Twin Cities.
His mother, Leslie Jablonski, said that once word went out on CaringBridge, even people they don't know rallied in support.
Jake Dowell, a center on the Dallas Stars from Eau Claire, Wis., wrote that he was sorry to hear about Jack's injury. "I, along with the rest of the Dallas Stars hockey team, are thinking about you and praying for you to get better soon and hopefully I can meet you some day when we play the Wild!" his note said.
Minnetonka native and Academy of Holy Angels High School standout Jack Hillen, a defenseman on the Nashville Predators, left a similar message. "Hang in there and stay strong! The Nashville Predators and I will keep you in our thoughts and prayers!" he said.
Jack's parents said the well-wishers make a difference. He's already talking about returning to the ice, they said.
"He's in a lot of pain, but his spirits are excellent. He's going to make it through. He's a fighter," said Mike Jablonski. "But we've got a long journey ahead of us."
Leslie Jablonski said doctors don't want to give a timeline for Jack's recovery. "There's so many unknowns. It's one day at a time," she said. "Initially, it was 15 minutes at a time."
Jack made varsity tennis as a freshman, plays on both the varsity and JV hockey teams and is a pitcher on a AAA baseball team, his father said.
His brother Max, 13, also plays hockey and looks to Jack as a role model. He's remained strong around Jack, reading him messages from his Facebook friends to cheer him up, Leslie Jablonski said.
This message was posted on Jack's Facebook wall after midnight on Sunday: "This is jacks brother reporting from jack he just wants to say: I'm doing ok and thank you for all the prayers and posts you guys are in my mind love you all and happy new year -Jabby." The post had nearly 300 "likes" by mid-afternoon.
Jack was in the offensive zone and was coming around the net when the two Wayzata players slammed into him, his father said. "It was just a very hard hit."
Leslie Jablonski said she feels awful for the other boys, at least one of whom knew Jack from youth leagues.
Although the Jablonskis say they have no hard feelings for the Wayzata team or its coaches, they worry that hockey coaches in general are "sending the wrong messages."
"Players are running at the other players even when they're totally defenseless," Mike Jablonski said.
Leslie Jablonski, who writes a blog called MyHockeyMama, agreed. "The checking seems to be a hot issue. This can be avoided," she said. "In two seconds, our lives just changed. All of our lives changed -- even theirs," she added, gesturing toward a group of visiting teens.
"We just want to make sure this doesn't happen again. And if they keep playing the game the way it is, there's going to be more attacks in situations like this."
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493