COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — The first thing you’ll notice about Jack Jablonski is that he’s always smiling.
And given everything he’s been through the past six-and-a-half months, that says a lot about the type of kid Jablonski is.
It was Dec. 30 of last year when Jablonski, then a sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, was checked from behind during a junior varsity hockey game. The hit sent Jablonski into the boards and severed his spinal cord. He was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.
Since his injury, Jablonski’s story has made national headlines. Numerous players from the NHL have shown their support for “Jabs” through phone calls, hospital visits, autographed jerseys and much more. They’ve all been touched and inspired by Jablonski’s story, and Wednesday night was another example of that when he dropped the ceremonial first puck before a charity game at Cottage Grove Ice Arena. The players taking part in the game — including NHL veterans Jake Gardiner (Maple Leafs), Derek Stepan (Rangers), Phil Housley (retired), Thomas Vanek (Sabres), Ryan McDonagh (Rangers), David Backes (Blues), Taylor Chorney (Blues), Stu Bickel (Rangers) and Jeff Taffe (Capitals) — presented Jablonski with a customized autographed jersey.
The fact Jablonski is able to attend and enjoy such functions is a sign of his remarkable progress.
When the injury occurred, doctors told Jablonski he would never walk again and likely would not regain function in his arms or hands. But Jablonski has been proving his doctors wrong ever since. A while back, he regained function in both arms. Now, he’s able to control a motorized wheelchair on his own. He can give high-fives to friends and shake hands with strangers who want to meet him.
In late May, Jablonski took to Twitter — his account, @Jabs_13, now has more than 40,000 followers — to let people know that he moved his left leg and ankle as well as a finger on his left hand.
“The therapist said it and she acted like it was no big deal. I was like, ‘Wait, say that one again,’ ” Jablonski told FOXSportsNorth.com on Wednesday. “I like (the doctors). But still, it’s my goal to prove them wrong.”
The average week for Jablonski consists of five days of physical therapy, with each session lasting about three hours. His next goal is to regain hand function. He’s slowly been able to move his left wrist, but he doesn’t have the function in his fingers that he would like.
Jablonski’s ultimate goal, of course, would be to walk — and possibly skate — again. It’s a long shot, but that hasn’t hampered Jablonski’s spirits. Through everything he’s endured, the 16-year-old has remained optimistic.
“I’ve always tried to stay positive because when you look at things in the negative way, it’s never going to become good,” he said. “Just staying positive, you look at life so much better and happier.”
That positive outlook on life has rubbed off on everyone who has met Jablonski since his injury.
“He’s quite a story. Anybody from Minnesota obviously knows about him and what he’s battling right now,” said McDonagh, a Minnesota native. “He’s definitely taking the right approach. You can see things are really paying off. He’s making good strides, and that’s what we all care about.”
While many current NHL players have spent time with Jablonski or sent him messages of encouragement, so, too, have two of the game’s all-time greats. Wayne Gretzky sent Jablonski a video message, and Hall of Famer Bobby Orr called Jablonski with an offer.
“It was back when the (Stanley) Cup was going on. He bet me 10 bucks that the New Jersey Devils would win,” Jablonski said of Orr. “So I got the better deal out of that.”
Orr made good on his bet, too.
“I got my money,” Jablonski said. “He signed two $5 bills for me. That was amazing. I just didn’t expect it. One random day he called me up. That was really neat.”
While moments like that have been memorable for Jablonski during an otherwise trying time, one event ranked above the rest. In March, Jablonski’s Benilde-St. Margaret’s varsity teammates wound up winning the Class AA state championship, defeating Hill-Murray 5-1 in the title game.
Jablonski admits it was tough to watch his friends from afar after his injury, but there was no hiding his elation when the Red Knights took the title home to BSM.
“That was the best day ever,” Jablonski said. “I was so excited for that. I couldn’t have asked for anything else to end the season. It was amazing for what they did after the whole injury and what happened this year. They deserved it, that’s for sure.”
There has been other recent hockey news that has Jablonski excited for the upcoming winter. The Minnesota Wild recently signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — the two biggest free agents on this year’s market — to matching 13-year, $98 million deals last week. The acquisitions have revitalized the State of Hockey and given Wild fans plenty to look forward to.
That includes Jablonski, who lobbied on Twitter for Parise to sign with Minnesota.
“That’s what I was just begging for,” Jablonski said. “I’m a huge Wild fan and Parise and Suter fan. For them to sign, it’s so big for the organization and for Minnesota hockey, just because it hasn’t been doing great the last few years. With this, it’ll really fill the seats and just get hockey back on track.”
Jack Jablonski looks forward to another hockey season, even though he may never skate again. He looks forward to watching his Benilde-St. Margaret’s teammates try to defend their state title. He looks forward to returning to school for his junior year, to hanging out with friends and “just trying to be a teenager.” He looks forward to seeing what Parise and Suter can bring to the Minnesota Wild.
Looking forward. That’s what Jablonski does these days. He knows it doesn’t do him any good to look back.
“Obviously, the progress has been great so far,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the next six months, I guess. And definitely hockey season.”