Jack Jablonski: The Spirit of the Hockey Family and Lessons Learned

Over the last six days we’ve learned a lot about a 16-year-old hockey player named Jack Jablonski. Unfortunately, last night, the newest thing we learned was that he probably will never walk again.

A check from behind in a JV hockey game in St. Louis Park, Minn., has altered a young man’s life forever. A broken vertebrae and severed spinal cord after a head-first crash into the boards.

Jablonski’s family posted the following on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s player’s CaringBridge page:

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.

Our priority is to help Jack accept and transition into his new life, a life that we did not plan, but one that we have to embrace. We have a mountain to climb, but with your support, we know that Jack’s youth, strength and determination will help him make remarkable strides.

In the face of some of the worst news a family can receive, the Jablonskis offer a positive message to all who have been following Jack’s story and sharing their support. The journal entry was titled “Never Give Up.” The Jablonski family simply won’t.

In the tragedy of such a catastrophic injury, the heartwarming support from the hockey community at large has been overwhelming. Visits, tweets, Facebook pages, guestbook messages, videos and calls for donations from around the hockey media has shown just how much hockey unites us all.

Jack Jablonski is one of us. He’s part of our family and because he’s part of our family, we’re going to be there for him.

One of the reasons I love hockey is because of the people. Sometimes I hate what the game brings out in some of us, but overwhelmingly, I have such positive feelings about the great people that play or are fans of hockey. We’re continually told how this is a niche sport and maybe we have a bit of an inferiority complex from time to time and get awfully protective, but it’s only because we love this game so much.

The support for Jack Jablonski and his family is easily one of the most overwhelming showings from hockey fans. His Facebook athlete page already has 27,000-plus likes. His Support Jack Jablonski page has nearly 18,000 as of this writing. Jablonski’s CaringBridge guestbook has been signed almost 5,000 times, with many NHL players past and present checking in.

The support on Twitter has been off the charts. Thousands have voiced their support using the #Jabs hash tag, particularly over the last few days.

Jablonski’s own twitter page has attracted many followers, as more than 7,700 people have clicked the follow button for @Jablumpkin.

Hopefully this support remains for many years, because this will be a long road for Jack Jablonski. It won’t be easy, but with the support from his hockey family, perhaps one day Jablonski will beat the odds. As long as he has this cast of thousands that stand behind him and as long as he fights as everyone expects he will, anything is possible.

While we all feel for this young man, whom many of us have never met, all we can do is continue to believe and continue to show our love and support. And we will.

Remember the Others

Jack Jablonski, unfortunately, is not the only player who has suffered this type of injury in a hockey game. His injury brings back all of the memories of players past.

We all know the story of Travis Roy, the Boston University player who suffered a paralyzing injury just 11 seconds into his college hockey career.

Travis authored the heralded book “Eleven Seconds” with E.M. Swift and has become a brilliant motivational speaker. His injury brought exposure to the dangers along the boards. Roy was not hit from behind, rather he was attempting to check an opposing player, but missed and appeared to catch an edge on his skate, sending him head first into the boards.

Roy has been an inspiration to people all over the world and his message of hope and positivity have touched many thousands. He has also become an activist for the disabled and his Travis Roy Foundation seeks to raise funds to help find a cure for spinal cord injuries and improve the lives of spinal cord injury survivors.

Most recently, there was young Derek Zike in 2009. Zike lost an edge while trying to make a turn, and ended up going head-first into the boards. The 16-year-old was left wheel-chair bound.

This was the first time I really saw what the hockey community can do. Zike was injured in Ann Arbor, during my first season at the National Team Development Program. I remember getting a phone call that night about the tournament that was taking place at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, home of the NTDP. When I heard of Zike’s injury, it was crushing.

Zike, an Indiana-native, would need to spend weeks at the University of Michigan after his surgery. Support for both him and his temporarily displaced family came pouring in from all over. He was visited many times by the players from the NTDP, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Michigan and so many more. The Zike family probably needs about seven closets for all of the signed jerseys they received. It’s just another example of how the hockey community was there.

Zike is now a sophomore at Miami (Ohio) University. He was drafted by the USHL’s Indiana Ice the year after the injury and joined the team on the ice in his wheelchair for starting lineups one night.

One of my personal heroes is a guy by the name of J.J. O’Connor. When I was a youth hockey player in Chicago, J.J. was a 16-year-old playing for the McFetridge Patriots. In his first game of the season, O’Connor chased a puck into the corner and got tripped up with an opposing defenseman and went head-first into the boards.

O’Connor was left a quadriplegic. It was big news in Chicago when the accident happened, so I’ve known his story for many years.

I met J.J. once when I was younger and was struck by his positive demeanor and passion for the game. Years later, when I started working for USA Hockey, I heard J.J. speak about that year’s Disabled Player of the Year winner. No script, just straight from the heart. It was one of the best speeches I’d ever heard.

O’Connor is now the head of USA Hockey’s disabled section and is one of the greatest ambassadors for disabled hockey in the United States. He was also the general manager for the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team that won gold in Vancouver.

I spoke with him again at the recent U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony and he was as chipper and as passionate as ever. He is an inspiration to me and probably all of the people he comes in contact with. There are few people that are as passionate about the sport than J.J. O’Connor. He’s living proof that no matter what happens to you in life, you can turn it around into a positive and make a sizable impact on the lives of others.

Here’s video of J.J.’s fantastic speech in tribute to the late Alex Knapp, the 2010-11 Disabled Athlete of the Year.

The Checking From Behind Reaction

After the injury to Jack Jablonski, there was very impassioned reaction from hockey coaches in Minnesota in regards to checking from behind.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Wayzata player that hit Jablonski is distraught over the incident. It’s easy to forget that this hit likely impacts two people’s lives in entirely different ways. This is a freak accident and the poor kid who hit Jablonski should not be vilified or chastised. These plays happen all the time and many won’t result in injury. This time was tragically different.

The hit, however, does force us all to take a long look at hits from behind. The checking from behind rules are strict, and have been for many years. That said, they still happen with an alarming frequency in the checking levels of hockey, particularly in high school or midget-level games.

A hit from behind along the boards is tempting fate.

We know from the stories listed above, these spinal cord injuries can happen in a variety of ways. Roy, Zike and O’Connor were all injured in freak accidents.

We can’t legislate all injuries out of the game. Hockey’s too fast to prevent every single injury. It’s a scary thought, but it’s the reality.

What we can do is be sure to teach all of our young players how to properly give and receive a body check and make abundantly clear the dangers of checking from behind. A hit from behind is well within the control of a player, whereas losing an edge or getting caught up in a foot race is more difficult to prevent.

Every hockey parent needs to talk to their hockey-playing child and make them promise they’ll never, ever hit an opponent from behind. We are naive to think checking from behind will never happen again, but it is important for all of us to teach our young players well enough to avoid most instances.

Some teams in Minnesota are already taking pledges to never hit from behind. It’s a step in the right direction.

The rules that are already in place need to be properly enforced and the players need to think before they make contact along the boards.

Hockey is a dangerous game, but anything we can do to make it less dangerous has to be done. It won’t ruin the integrity of the game. If anything, it will make it better.

—-

Our hockey community has shown just how great it can be these past few days. The injury to Jack Jablonski has reminded us all that there are more important things in life than Stanley Cups, gold medals, goals and wins.

Let’s also remember to keep Jack Jablonski, Derek Zike, J.J. O’Connor and Travis Roy in our thoughts always. They were hurt playing the game they loved. And like Zike, O’Connor and Roy and the others that have suffered such an injury, we can be sure Jablonski will come out on the other side stronger. He has an army of supporters and an extended hockey family that will never forget about him.

Never Give Up.

UPDATE: If you would like to donate funds to help support the Jablonski family in this long road ahead, you can send your donations to the following address:

Jack Jablonski Fund
WellsFargo Bank
8200 Golden Valley Rd.
GoldenValley, MN 55427

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Jack Jablonski: The Spirit of the Hockey Family and Lessons Learned

  1. EXCELLENT READ! Thanks Chris

  2. Yeti says:

    Great read, Chris.

  3. Mn hockey mom says:

    Well written and inspirational. Thanks, Chris.

  4. former Redhawk hockey mom says:

    Nice tribute to Jack and to the many other young men and women who have been critically injured in hockey. It would be good to reconsider the rules to not only prevent back checking, but to outlaw all checking in youth hockey.

  5. Bree says:

    You’re absolutely right, the hockey community is amazing. I’m proud to be a part of the hockey family.

    Another fairly recent injury was Matt Brown of Norwood, Mass in 2010. I’ve been following his story, and have been amazed by his incredible high spirits and never give up attitude. Mattbrownnumber3.org.

  6. Martin Breen says:

    A truly horrific injury to such a terrifc young man. We hope he is able to prove the doctor’s wrong and walk some day. Until then, we will keep him in our thoughts and prayers.

  7. Martin Breen says:

    On safety in youth hockey.

    Each time I watch a youth game in Cailfornia, I cringe at the illegal head shots, checks from behind and leg whips. Honestly, I am positive that these kids are not being taught how to properly check with your hands down and using your shoulder.

    The NHL has made huge strides to make hockey safer for their players. But what has USA Hockey done to make it safer for our kids? The Refs usually are not very good and certainly do not enforce the rules properly.

    The pledge to not check from behind is a good start but they need to back it up with stiff penalties and suspensions so the improper behavior can be cured.

    My suggestion is that he each club hire a player safety manager who’s sole job is teach young players about safety. Using the NHL videos would be a good start. He/she could also brief teams about the consequences of illegal hits like the one to Jack.

    Youth Hockey should be leading in player safety, not be behind the NHL.

    • D.Dooley says:

      I agree Martin, player safety should be paramount, however the NHL is able to enforce these rules a lot more effectively because of video replay and a staff of people specifically looking out for these violations. That is how they are able to lead the hockey community in this area. I think the approach needs to start at the beginning of the hockey learning experience. Even in leagues where checking is not allowed, it still needs to be addressed when teaching the proper ways to skate toward the boards ( never 90 degrees always at an angle less than ) This change in skating mechanics will cut down on a skaters vulnerability once they reach the danger area next to the boards. Lets give these young players tools and methods they can practice that become second nature and keep them in better position along the boards whether an opposing player is there or not. As for the pursuing player, the same is true. Skate to the boards at an angle less than 90 degrees, if you’re in proper position then your angle would be contrary to the other skater and you should be facing that player when you reach the boards to defend and make your play on the puck. Changing the mechanics of how we teach players to chase pucks to the boards will put us ahead of the NHL as some these young players will be the future generations of NHL Players.

  8. Martin Breen says:

    Chris,

    An extraordinary piece. JJ’s speech is amazing.

  9. Great article! This is such a TRAGIC accident to an amazing kid! I am the wife of the former Varsity Head Coach of St. Louis Park’s Hockey team. My husband had the pleasure of coaching Jack in many summer camps. I am dedicated to help offset Jack’s medical costs and have people show support for Jabs at the same time. I have created rhinestone shirts and hats with Jabs logo that I will sell with 100% of the profits going DIRECTLY to his family. If there are hockey teams out there that want to order to help out, please contact me at Linnea.Donahue@gmail.com. You can check out the t-shirt design by looking at my facebook profile pic. Stay strong Jabs!

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