There’s something uniquely dramatic about high school sports. It can often be over-glorified and maybe sometimes there’s a little too much pressure put on the kids, but what happened last night in St. Paul was every bit storybook.
What can make high school sports so incredible is when kids, and they are kids, rise to the occasion in a very adult way. On the field of play, or in this case a sheet of ice, young athletes do the things we come to expect from professionals. Although they don’t do it for a pay check or what others will think or write about them. These young athletes do it for the joy of competition, the pride in themselves and in their schools. They do it for their teammates.
The Benilde-St. Margaret’s boys’ hockey team had a very special teammate in mind on their march to the state title: Jack Jablonski.
The team decided not to dedicate the season to Jack after the 16-year-old’s spinal cord was severed after being checked head-first into the boards in late December. Why wouldn’t they? The team decided that wouldn’t be enough. What happens when the season is over? He was going to need their love and support for much longer than that.
Though they may not have dedicated the season to their teammate, they sure played like it. The Red Knights, with Jablonski’s No. 13 stitched onto their right shoulders, skated off the Xcel Energy Center Ice on Saturday night as Minnesota State Champions.
Benilde’s magical run to the title was movie-like. Heck, maybe it will be a movie some day.
It started Thursday against perennial powerhouse and favored Edina. One broadcaster called Edina the New York Yankees of Minnesota high school hockey.
With the game tied at two and time running out in regulation, BSM forward Grant Besse forced a turnover in the neutral zone and sent a pass to captain Christian Horn. The BSM senior sped around two Edina defenders and ripped a shot into the top-right corner with just 24 seconds remaining to give the Red Knights the 3-2 lead. The goal stood as the game-winner.
In his post game interview with Channel 45, Horn stared into the camera and said “It’s all for you,” speaking to Jablonski.
As the final buzzer sounded, BSM head coach Ken Pauly, who looked every bit the part with his red blazer, often steely gaze and neatly combed hair, pumped his fist in euphoria. It told you everything you needed to know about what that win meant to the coach and the players. It was merely a step toward the ultimate goal, but getting past that first hurdle had to be a relief, particularly for Coach Pauly.
It was Pauly who had to tell his team, their young teammate wouldn’t be able to walk again. It was Pauly who had to find a way to get his team to compete without guilt again. It was Pauly who had to turn them into champions, guiding the team to an 18-3-0 record since Dec. 30, the night of the incident that left Jablonski paralyzed.
“What do you do? There’s nothing in a manual,” Pauly told Pam Louwagie of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (read this excellent piece), speaking about how a coach helps his team through something like this.
Perhaps Pauly will be consulted to help write such a manual.
Following the emotional win over Edina, Benilde had to take on Lakeville South for the right to play for the state title. Lakeville South boasted the state’s leading scorer in Justin Kloos and had just pulled off a huge upset of its own, taking down No. 1 seed Duluth East.
Illness kept Jablonski from attending the Friday-night semi-final contest, so the Knights were determined to make sure to give him another game to go to on Saturday.
The Knights exploded for five goals in the first period and rolled past Lakeville South, 10-1.
The huge victory set a date for Saturday night with traditionally strong Hill-Murray.
Jablonski indeed made it back to the X to watch his team play for the title. While a lot of attention was rightfully directed at Jablonski, the game became the Grant Besse show pretty quickly.
The BSM junior forward scored two goals in the first period 1:23 apart. In a more evenly-matched second period, Besse found himself on a shorthanded breakaway and buried puck for a natural hat trick and a 3-0 lead.
There was a buzz in the air heading into the third. For the entire 13th minute of the period, the BSM student section pointed to Jablonski’s box. Some chanting his name, some holding up one finger on one hand and three on the other.
After Hill-Murray drew within two goals, BSM captain Jake Horton was whistled for a five-minute major and a game misconduct for spearing. It was poor timing for a team that had been rolling. Surely this would add tension, right? Wrong.
Not long into the penalty kill, Besse was off to the races again on a shorthanded breakaway. He didn’t mess around with it, firing a rocket writer into the top-right corner of the net making it 4-1. Then, late in the third with BSM shorthanded once again, Besse sent what looked like a fairly harmless shot on net, but it found the top-left corner.
Five goals. Three shorthanded. Fifty-two goals on the season for the University of Wisconsin recruit and 2012 Draft-eligible forward. Guess he saved the best for last.
Even Besse had to admit that he had to “check back into reality” after that game.
It was ridiculous to the nth degree.
Benilde-St. Margaret’s was the sentimental favorite of course. The cheers were incredibly loud for each of Besse’s goals and as the final buzzer sounded. It was a big win for Benilde, but it was a victory for the Minnesota hockey community that has been through a rough stretch after Jablonski’s injury.
A state championship won’t fix Jack. Grant Besse’s five goals, while seemingly miraculous in the sports world, won’t help Jablonski walk again. But Jablonski, his team and the community that suffered with him, that supported him, were rewarded Saturday night. They were given a terrific and well deserved gift.
State championships in hockey are what the young hockey players dream about in Minnesota. Kyle Rau’s diving goal in last year’s state title was likely reenacted many times on the ponds of Eden Prairie. Just as Grant Besse’s backhand-shelf on his hat-trick goal will be practiced on the homemade rinks of Besse’s native Plymouth.
One can only imagine what the celebration was like in the BSM locker room, where Jablonski awaited his teammates. Not only were childhood dreams realized, there was something a little more special for this team.
Through the darkness and uncertainty, Jack Jablonski, his teammates, his coach and his hockey family were given a little bit of light.
Jack’s fight doesn’t even come close to ending here. The road is going to be long and tough, but that’s why the Knights didn’t dedicate the season to No. 13. They just picked up their teammate when he needed them. They’ll continue to pick him up, but at least for a few weeks, they might not be able to lift him as high as they did on a sheet of ice on a Saturday night in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Don’t forget, you can still donate to the Jack Jablonski Fund at jabby13.com.
Also, major kudos for the fantastic work by Minnesota Hockey Hub all season long on this story and its coverage of Minnesota High School Hockey.
Keep the season going by reading “Scarlet Ice,” the story of John Janavaras and his Minnesota high school hockey team. John lost his life during his sophomore season during a meningitis outbreak in February 1995. Scarlet Ice is the story of his love for hockey, and what his team did in the playoffs to honor their fallen sophomore teammate. Scarlet Ice reached No. 1 among hockey books on Amazon.com a few days ago.
Crazy! Someone work of the script for Disney.