Dan Labosky of Benilde-St. Margaret's skated in on Lakeville South goalie Tyler Schumacher and scored a first-period goal in a Class 2A semifinal Friday night.
About an hour before his Lakeville South team faced Benilde-St. Margaret's in a Class 2A semifinal on Friday, coach Kurt Weber looked at the red band on his wrist and chuckled. "I think even my wife is cheering for them,'' said Weber, who had not taken off the wristband worn in honor of injured Benilde forward Jack Jablonski.
Ken Pauly knew exactly what Weber meant. The Benilde coach is used to private schools being viewed as the villains at the boys' state high school hockey tournament, but the hockey world's mass support of Jablonski has diminished that. "We're enjoying the fact that the anti-private school cheers aren't as loud,'' Pauly said with a laugh. "There are still some diehards out there who are going to love Jabby and hate us, and that's fine.''
Both teams navigated what Weber called "a tender walk'' in Friday's game, led 5-0 by Benilde in the second period when this edition of the Star Tribune went to press. When Jablonski was paralyzed in a game last December, the hockey world enfolded Benilde in its arms, but Pauly has reminded its team that it cannot feel burdened by the public's wish for a happy ending. Lakeville South is among the many teams that has pulled and prayed for Jablonski, but Weber told them Friday that beating Benilde would not make them the bad guys.
Though Benilde and Lakeville South each reached the semifinals by upsetting a seeded team, only one felt like a genuine underdog. The warmth surrounding Benilde has created an aura around the team, and Thursday's quarterfinal victory over Edina only added to it. The Red Knights did not play well but still won in dramatic fashion on Christian Horn's goal with 23.9 seconds remaining.
When the players returned to their hotel, Pauly said, they were cheered by fans from Duluth East and Hermantown -- a strange scene the coach viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The love and concern for Jablonski has created an outpouring of good will toward Benilde, something Pauly has tried to downplay.
The Red Knights took a 3-0 lead in Friday's first period on two goals by Dan Labosky and one from Grant Besse. They showed none of the stage fright that overcame them in Thursday's game, appearing as loose as Pauly hoped they would be. At this point, he said, his players have grown used to the high-wattage spotlight reflected by Jablonski, and they have remained able to separate their intense feelings for their teammate from the task at hand when they take the ice.
"We've had the right perspective on it from the beginning,'' Pauly said. "The noise gets amplified the farther we go, and it isn't always easy. Every question asked goes back to Jack. But we don't hide from it. We embrace it.''
Lakeville South, which confidently handled top-ranked Duluth East in Thursday's quarterfinals, also is a close team. Their ethic is defined by star Justin Kloos, who on Friday was asking Weber if he could include his teammates in the interviews he had been asked to do.
Kloos could have chosen to refine his game in junior hockey or with the U.S. national team development program. He stayed in high school so he could continue to play with his best friends, Alex Harvey and Joe Freemark. All of them, Weber said, wore Jablonski wristbands and stickers; the team had met to talk about his injury, and it had left a message on his CaringBridge page.
Weber asked them, too, to separate their feelings for Jablonski from their mission on the ice. The best tribute they could pay, he said, would be to play as well as they could.
"(Benilde) has reason to be emotional,'' Weber said. "We feel the same passion for Jack that everyone else does, but at the same time, we know it's an honor to compete. The way you honor Jack and honor the game is to make sure his team competes against a really good team.''
Pauly is well aware of the feeling of inevitability now surrounding the Red Knights. He knows that thousands of strangers have shed tears for a young hockey player they never met, then cheered his small victories. They want the story to end the way it is supposed to, in triumph, with his teammates putting a state championship medal around his neck.
He had tried to resist that feeling himself. Friday, Pauly entertained the idea, with one caveat: Whatever happens, it is merely another chapter in his team's story, and in Jablonski's.
"You do kind of wonder after a while,'' he said. "I think of what Samwise said to Frodo (in the Lord of the Rings). He asked, 'What kind of adventure are we in?'
"I don't know what sort of adventure we're in. A happy ending, there's no such thing. There is no end to this.''