In an ideal world Jabby would never have skated onto the ice in the third period for Benilde--St. Margaret's School in its junior varsity game against Wayzata High on Dec. 30. A crafty forward with a knack for scoring, Jack, 16, had always been a star on his Minneapolis Storm association teams, but the jump to high school from association hockey is generally a difficult one. He made varsity this season as a third- or fourth-liner, and his coach, Ken Pauly, sometimes had the sophomore play a period or two with the junior varsity to get him more ice time.
Jack scored the first goal of the game against Wayzata and played through the first two periods. Since Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) rules limit a player to four periods every 24 hours, Leslie knew he would have preferred to sit and play more minutes with the Red Knights' varsity in its game against Maple Grove High later that night. She was bummed, too; she wanted to see him skate up. Plus, she says, "the [jayvee] game was getting a bit rough."
It was unusual for Leslie to be standing behind the curve in the end boards with her husband, Mike, watching Jack chase a puck in the offensive zone. Typically, she sits in the stands with the other moms. But she and Mike had been chatting between periods, and for some reason she stayed. Leslie was separated from her son by a plate of glass and a few feet when, five minutes and 48 seconds into the third period, Jack was hit from behind by a Wayzata forward and flew headfirst into the boards.
"When your son goes down, you count to five, and you say, O.K., get up. But he didn't," says Mike.
"I knew something was wrong when he didn't get up," says Leslie. "He always gets up."
Mike was the first to go out on the ice. Leslie couldn't move. Someone pushed her out there; she doesn't remember who. "When he said, 'Mom, I can't move,' I almost collapsed on top of him."
In the first days after Jack is injured—he is paralyzed from the elbows down—news spreads on Facebook and Twitter, from hockey family to hockey family and across the globe: Japan, Australia, England, China. Messages pour in on Jack's website at CaringBridge.org (which provides free sites to people dealing with health challenges). People visit by the thousands. Ten thousand. A hundred thousand. Half a million. While Jack lies in the pediatric intensive care unit of Hennepin County Medical Center, his head locked in place by a halo, a feeding tube running down his nose, his family is gathering for Mass at Christ the King church. Not his parents or his 13-year-old brother, Max, but his hockey family: row after row of players from area teams, all in their uniforms, their faces ashen. The boy who hit Jack sits with his father. They both sob throughout the service.
It is one thing to know you play a dangerous game. It is another to walk into a hospital room and see your best friend immobilized on a bed. Sixteen-year-old sophomore Zack Hale has played on a line with Jack from Mites into high school. He was on the ice when Jack went down. At first he didn't understand the gravity of it; he finished the game, a 3--3 tie that Benilde--St. Margaret's won in a shootout. "I thought he'd be out for a while and then come back and play," Zack says. Two days later he visited Jack for the first time. "Right when I walked in, I just broke down," he says. "I started crying. I couldn't stop."
Like everyone else in our community, Zack is suffering. The fund-raisers and prayers help, but for days he struggles to focus in class. He can't sleep. Neither can I. My heart races. Nerves underneath my skin jump and twitch. I take Ambien to sleep, but even then, my eyes pop open at 3 a.m., my heart pounding as I think of Jack opening his own eyes and wondering, in that second between sleep and wakefulness, if it was all a bad dream.
For weeks Jack's family sets up camp in a family suite at HCMC. They sleep there, they shower there. Max reads aloud the messages that pour in for Jack. Max also holds the phone to his brother's ear during calls from Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Ovechkin and other NHL luminaries. A team of hockey parents are on call to do whatever the family might need—drive Max, a Storm Pee Wee A player, to a game, water the plants at home, feed the dog, clean the toilets, anything. For the Jablonskis, there is before and after, and inside and outside. Before, Mike, 54, is a sales manager at 3M. Leslie, 52, is in p.r. After, he is on leave and she has put her business on hold.