Max Jablonski, wearing his older brother Jack's No. 13 jersey, lined up with Benilde-St. Margaret's teammates of Jack before Saturday's game against St. Louis Park. The teammates signed the jersey. Photo by Tom Wallace, Star Tribune
The Benilde-St. Margaret's boys' hockey team made an emotional return Saturday night to thundering crowd support and word that paralyzed teammate Jack Jablonski was moving both arms beyond a range thought possible.
Fans exploded in "We love Jabby!" cheers before the team hit the ice. The arena, packed with white-clad supporters, exploded when his younger brother Max was introduced as an honorary team member and skated to the stick-tapping team at the blue line. Under his team jersey, Max wore his brother's gameday red tie.
Players teared up before the game when told that Jablonski, 16, bent his right arm to overlap his upper arm and, for the first time, was able to move his left hand. His mother, Leslie, demonstrated the movement for reporters before she took in Benilde's 7-0 victory over in-town rival St. Louis Park.
Jablonski was hit from behind in a game Dec. 30, suffering injuries that had doctors saying he would not walk again. But Saturday, those arm movements offered hope.
"According to where the spinal cord was severed, that [movement] just really isn't possible,'' Leslie Jablonski said at the St. Louis Park Rec Center, scene of the paralyzing check. "His neurosurgeon saw it and said, 'Jack, you made my day.' There wasn't a dry eye in the room, including Jack's.
"I feel weird being here with a smile but it was just a great day."
Benilde-St. Margaret's coach Ken Pauly called it a miracle, saying, "We'll take every flippin' small one we can get.''
The game capped a wrenching week for Benilde, which canceled JV and varsity games earlier in the week because players were emotionally wrought.
"I've had people ask me if I would allow my son to continue to skate,'' said Janice Steinhauser, whose son Christian Horn is a senior forward and captain. "I would take away his heart if I would take away his sport.''
By Saturday night, parents were edgy but said their sons ready, their hearts and minds adjusting to Jack's call to play with a smile on their faces. Players said they got chills when Max skated out.
Before the game, mothers of players sold T-shirts, buttons, stickers, and took checks for a trust fund for Jablonski. Fifty pairs of red-and-white mittens, with Jablonski's number 13 sewed into them, sold out at $50 apiece well before the JV game ended. During the varsity game, at one point the scoreboard was set to 13-13 in tribute.
Both games showed hesitancy and timid play. Late in the varsity game, the Red Knights' Tyler Ellergard crashed into the boards under a player. The crowd stood, hushed as Ellergard lay motionless on the ice for several moments. Then he slowly rose, with help, and skated off. The infraction drew a five-minute penalty against the Orioles.
At the final buzzer, players lined up to salute cheering fans with their sticks. Afterward, longtime Jablonski linemate Zach Hale quietly expressed joy that his longtime buddy is doing better and rallying his team.
Leslie Jablonski said she talked with her son Saturday about the reality of his situation.
"He says 'Why me?' We don't know why. It's heart-wrenching, but then ... you have an experience like today," she said.
A playful Jack asked her, "When can I strap up my skates?" she said. "Just that optimism. The kid that he is, it's coming through."