A junior varsity hockey game between Benilde-St. Margaret's High School and Wayzata High School during a holiday tournament in St. Louis Park, Minnesota on Friday, Dec. 30 began brightly for Benilde sophomore Jack Jablonski, who scored the opening goal for the Red Knights. But a shocking injury suffered during the second period has left Jablonski paralyzed.
As the 16-year-old Benilde student skated after a puck, he was pursued by a pair of skaters from Wayzata. The first hit him between the shoulder blades and the second pushed him against the boards.
"His face slammed against the boards and his body was straight up and down," Benilde's junior varsity coach Chris McGowan said.
According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Wayzata coach Duke Johnson described the play as "odd."
"It wasn't a booming hit," he said. "Was it a check from behind? Yes," added Johnson. "Did our kid take eight strides and then hit him? No."
The Wayzata player who delivered the blow that sent Jablonski into the boards was issued a five-minute major penalty for boarding as well as a 10-minute game disqualification. Regardless of the intent or the legality of the hit on Jablonski, it was immediately clear that he was injured, badly. After telling his coach that he had no feeling in his hands or feet, Jablonski was taken to a nearby hospital, just five miles from his 930-student high school.
"This is a very serious spine injury," said Dr. Tina Slusher, who treated Jack when he arrived at the intensive care unit at Hennepin County Medical Center. He was placed in a halo to stabilize his spine.
"It's a parent's worst nightmare," Mike Jablonski, Jack's father, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Sunday while at the hospital. "He dropped and didn't move. Right then and there I knew that my son, that there was something seriously wrong."
Teammates wearing their hockey jerseys, friends, family and even noteworthy well-wishers like Minnesota North Stars legend Lou Nanne visited Jablonski in the hospital in the days after his injury as doctors waited or the swelling in his spinal chord to subside before surgery. According to a teammate who spent some time with the injured honor student at the hospital, Jablonksi was in good spirits.
"He was good. He was making jokes and taking with us and he sounded good," said Austin Polson-McCannon.
Those who were unable to visit Jablonski in the hospital offered messages of support via Facebook, CaringBrige and Twitter. Among the high-profile figures to send tweets to @jablumpkin were Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native.
On Wednesday, Jablonksi underwent a 2.5-hour surgery to fuse vetebrae in his neck which in order to stabilize his spine in order to facilitate whatever healing is possible as well as to hopefully allow him to sit upright. During the surgery it was confirmed that he has a severed spinal cord in the neck that could not be repaired. Therefore, the post-surgery prognosis remains grim and the teenager is not expected to walk again. It has been reported that he has some movement in his right shoulder and bicep that may eventually allow him to drive a wheel chair and perhaps feed himself.
After the surgery, Jack's parents, Mike and Leslie, shared a message on their son's CaringBridge page.
It is with a heavy heart that we write this entry tonight. Jack's surgery today to fuse his vertebrae was a success, but it also confirmed that his injury was horrific.
Jack has limited mobility and no movement in his lower body. As we feared, he will not be able to walk or skate. This news is devastating to Jack and everyone who loves him. Our hope and dream is that he will be able to prove this prognosis wrong.
After performing the surgery, Dr. Walter Galicich admitted that it would "take a miracle" for Jablonski to recover full use of his arms and legs.
All too aware that there is far too much to take care of to wait on a miracle, Jablonski's family has established the Jack Jablonski Fund to allow those who feel compelled to contribute financial support to Jack's care. Grassroots efforts, from student "whiteouts" at various schools to a tupperware fundraiser, have also been cropping up to show support and raise money.
While this injury has irrevocably altered Jack's life, many are again wondering whether the rules of youth hockey should be amended further. Although checking from behind is already against the rules in Minnesota high school hockey, there is a steady undercurrent in the youth hockey world calling for the outright banning of body checking.
During his visit to Jablonski, Nanne addressed the issue with the Tribune, saying "This is one of the reasons why USA Hockey legislated checking out of peewee hockey. For all those people who wonder why, now you know why.''