THE WAY WE PLAY THE GAME

After the hit that left Jack Jablonski paralyzed, the state of Minnesota rewrote its high school rules, but one hockey mom still agonizes over the choices she—and every parent in her position—has to make
February 27, 2012

My husband and I have an understanding about attending our son Cade's hockey games: Sometimes he has to sit with me. He prefers to stand alone at the glass behind the net. There Peter can focus on the game, which is why he comes. I come to watch Cade. And talk to the other moms. But mostly I shiver in freezing rinks across Minnesota to be with Peter. "You know, we have no life," I tell him. And he looks me in the eye and promises me one night out a week, just the two of us. But then the life we do have with Cade, 14, and our daughter, Raye, 13, gets in the way. And he'll gaze at me apologetically and say, "Next week."

Still, the real trouble comes from the things Peter tells me when he is not looking at me, and they always start like this: I forgot to tell you....

"I forgot to tell you, Cade was asked to play in the Elite tournament next weekend."

"I forgot to tell you, I told one of the Texas dads that his kid can stay with us while he's in town for tryouts. Actually, the dad, too."

And so he knows: At games, he has to put in his time. An ex-goalie who grew up playing here, he leans in close and explains, "Do you see how their wings open up? They have room to cycle the puck. We don't. We're too high. Do you see?" Now it's my turn to look him in the eyes. "Yes," I tell him.

I have no idea what he's talking about.

If I focus, I can follow the puck. Everything else is a blur. What I pay attention to is the energy. Every time someone goes into the boards, I flinch. Every time the whistle blows, it's the same. "What happened?" I ask Peter.

"Cross-checking," he'll say.

"What happened?" I ask.

"Interference," he'll tell me.

"What happened?" I ask.

He'll look at me, and breathe deep. "Kiddo, offsides."

Peter is a lawyer, but this is his real job: to tell me what is happening, and that everything is O.K. My job? I'm the one who doesn't get it. I keep the skates sharp, cook when three teammates sleep over and leave the room when the big hits highlights are on TV. "What does that have to do with hockey?" I ask.

"Mom, you so don't get it," Cade says, laughing.

"Hitting is fun," Raye chimes in. "I wish girls could check."

My kids like to laugh at me. I don't mind. It's better than the usual bickering. Who gets the remote? Who gets the front seat? They make noise. I try to ignore it. So when I walk into the kitchen on New Year's Eve morning, I immediately notice the quiet. I open the refrigerator. Peter gives me a kiss. He reaches across me to get some eggs. "Do you want cream cheese?" he asks Cade. "No, thanks," Cade says, keeping his eyes fixed on me. Weird. I turn back to Peter. "Did he take his vitamins?" I ask. "Yes," he says. He doesn't move. I am blocked between his arm and the door. "I forgot to tell you," he says. Something in his voice is strange. He looks at me. Cade and Raye are both staring at me now. Peter touches my hand.

"Jack Jablonski broke his neck last night."

JACK JABLONSKI—known as Jabby to his friends and the kids like Cade who grew up skating with him on the lakes around our homes—is not the first boy to break his neck playing this game. But he is the first one whom we who have kids still in Minneapolis youth and high school hockey programs have watched grow up. From the minute we first nudged our children onto the ice, we knew to expect bumps and bruises. Their ligaments rip. Their bones break. Their brains bang around in their heads.

This season, prompted in part by a University of Calgary study that showed alarming rates of concussion and injury in youth hockey when players were allowed to body check, USA Hockey raised the initial checking age from Pee Wees (ages 11 to 12) to Bantams (ages 13 to 14). The organization also outlawed all blows to the head. Checking from behind has been a penalty since 1978.

But you cannot regulate all risk out of hockey. No one can eliminate the danger inherent in a body crashing into the boards. "It's every mom's fear," says Leslie Jablonski, Jack's mom. "Every time I hear that sound, I gasp. I shut my eyes and hope to God that everything is O.K."

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.

Eight days after Jack's injury, Max is asked to sit on the Benilde bench when Jack's jayvee team returns to the ice for its first game since he went down. Mike, who plans to stay at the hospital, wants Leslie to be there, for Max.

"I don't think I can," she tells him. "I don't think I can handle it."

But she goes. All eyes are on her. Composed and eloquent, she talks to reporters about enforcing the rules to make the game safe. That is outside.

Inside, she says, "I can't stop trembling." In Jack's hospital room she steadies her hand to trim his toenails. Standing close to her son's head is a 69-year-old Ph.D. sports physiologist and retired math teacher named Jack Blatherwick. He worked closely with Jack in off-season training and at Benilde. He massages Jack's hand, then notices his face is sweating. Below the C5 vertebra, Jack's autoregulatory system no longer works, so his body doesn't know when he is overheating. Blatherwick lays ice packs along Jack's torso and legs. Every few seconds, as he and Blatherwick talk, his eyes roll backward. According to Jack's physical therapist, this is either because he is tired, or because his body wants to move. With his head in the halo and movement gone below his elbows, his eyes are a go-to stress reliever. So is his ability to talk about hockey.

"My favorite player is Datsyuk," Jack tells me. "Pavel Datsyuk [of the Red Wings]. I love his style. His hands are amazing. That's why I am number 13.... Or that's why I was number 13." He chortles, like he just got himself good.

"You're still number 13, buddy," I tell him.

"The whole world is number 13," says Blatherwick. Now Leslie smiles. She tries to be strong, but it is a challenge. Before the operation to repair his shattered vertebrae, Leslie recalls, Jack asked the neurosurgeon two questions.

"Am I going to walk again?"

The doctor said, "No."

"Am I going to skate again?"

"No, Jack."

"It's hard to see the tears rolling down your son's face and not be able to do anything," she says. "What do I say when he asks, Why me? It has tested my faith. But the pastor at the hospital told me it's O.K. to be mad at God. I told Jack that. 'It's O.K. to be mad at God.'"

Jack has dark moments. Moments at night when he worries about his future. When he thinks about what he has lost. When he wakes up because of an itch he cannot scratch and he has to call for his mother to help him. But he seems incapable of anger. One of the first things he asked at the hospital, amidst the tears and anguish, was about the boy who hit him.

"He kept telling us, 'Call his dad,'" says Leslie. " 'Tell him I don't blame him.'" Like most hockey kids, they already know each other. They had skated together off-season. Jack asks him to visit, says Leslie, because "he wants to be sure he is O.K."

He isn't. Everyone is worried about him, including reporters who keep his name out of the press. His despair is overwhelming. If the Jablonskis could turn back time, they would, for both boys. "I don't blame him," says Leslie. When the boy came to visit Jack, she says, "I cried with him. He was playing the game we taught him to play."

"No one ever intends to injure someone," Jack says. "I don't want him to live on dwelling over this." Though Jack, too, chooses not to dwell on it, he remembers every detail of the impact, starting with the "jolting pain" that ran down his neck when the fifth and sixth vertebrae shattered. "The injury I had, it was a freak accident," he says. "That kid was doing the right thing. He played me the right way, and at the wrong time, I turned. In that area by the boards, there should be caution. But you can't be soft, or totally take away hitting, because that's not hockey."

At home, I read an e-mail from Blatherwick about a letter he is writing to Let's Play Hockey, a youth hockey newspaper. Blatherwick worked with Herb Brooks to train the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He has worked with the Rangers, the Devils and now, the Capitals. But his passion is the kids he has trained in Minneapolis for more than 20 years. All he wants is strict enforcement of the rule book.

Cheap hits have overtaken hard-to-teach skill as a shortcut to victory, he insists; boarding must be called every time. "Trust me, I am not trying to be cute with words," Blatherwick says. "I am too sick to my stomach whenever I leave the hospital after seeing Jabby. I get to my van and weep like a f---ing baby. But then I get fired up and lie awake, trying to clarify the direction we must take to change this game."

Across the city, we are all lying awake. Moms and dads, coaches, refs, association heads. When my eyes pop open at night, the words I have heard all week are stuck in my head. It was a fluke. It was an accident.

And this is what I think about: protons. At the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, the European Organization for Nuclear Research has created a system of tunnels more than 16 miles long in which physicists set two proton beams racing at each other from opposite directions at virtually the speed of light in order to watch them crash—and, they hope, to discover the meaning of the universe. Their protons are sent out in shifts, just like our boys, 110 billion or so at a time. It takes thousands of magnets to create a force field strong enough—more than 100,000 times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field—to direct the two tiny proton beams to a precise point where their paths meet head-on. Shift after shift, 110 billion protons from one direction race toward 110 billion coming from the opposite direction. How many per shift actually hit?

Twenty.

Seven billion dollars and 20-plus years in the making, and when those 220 billion protons meet, the chances of two particular protons directly hitting are one in one sextillion.

It's rare, but it ain't no accident.

Here in Minnesota, our scales are smaller, our measurements less precise. The ice itself is usually the NHL standard 85 feet by 200 feet. At full speed the average high school player skates at 20 mph—not quite the speed of light. Our kids go out in shifts of two or three, not 110 billion. There are no magnets to keep them rushing at each other.

But there is a force field.

For 10 years it has set my nerves on edge. It is generated by parents who bang their hands on the glass and yell at their sons to Take him out! and by coaches who scream at their players to Take the body! and by everyone who shouts at the refs to Let them play the game! It is generated by refs who are so fed up with the madness that they lose control of the game, allowing teenage boys pumped up with adrenaline to get away with what they can: slashing, throwing elbows, taking runs from behind. The first time I heard a dad scream, "Kill that kid!" in reference to Cade, he was a Mite. Six years old. I turned to look at the man and said to him, "That kid's my son." He rolled his eyes and walked away.

The message was clear: You don't get it.

It's true; I am a stranger in this land. All I understand is how much Cade loves this game. So I drive him to practice, I wash his gear, I run out when his stick breaks in the middle of a tournament to get him a replacement—the right flex, the right grip, the right lie. What the hell is a lie? This is his life, and if I am not in, I am out. Still, sometimes, when a kid hits the boards really hard, I can't help myself: I turn to whoever is sitting next to me and say, "I hate this game."

By his second week in the hospital, Jack is doing better. There is a steady stream of friends who come by to hang out. One day a girl is popping Reese's Pieces into Jack's mouth. Another day he and his good buddy Keegan Iverson, also a Storm alum, reminisce about the time shortly before Jack's injury when, says Keegan, "We took the keys to my mom's car and drove to a friend's house." At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Keegan, 15, made varsity last year as an eighth-grader at Breck, a small private school famous in the city for its hockey prowess. He was placed on the protected list of the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks last May. If all goes well, the NHL is more than a dream for him. But he is still a kid. Both Leslie and Keegan's mom, Amy, laugh about the unlicensed joyride. "Leslie just wanted to know who drove," Amy says. "She said, 'Thank goodness it wasn't Jack. I let him drive in the garage once and he hit a wall.'"

The injury broke Jack's neck, not his spirit; Leslie is relieved just to see her son happy. But after the adrenaline overdrive of the first week dies down, her own despair and exhaustion show. "I love hockey," she says. "I loved watching Jack's skill on the ice. I loved the friendships. I loved how much he loved it."

When the nurses make his friends leave, and Jack is alone with what Leslie calls their "new normal," they both struggle. "He said, 'Mom, hockey was my whole life. If I can't play hockey, what is there to live for?'"

She brushes aside her tears. "Now I wonder if we let him love it too much."

In my mind, hockey is a game kids play while they go to school. The point is to have fun, make friends and then put the skates to the side and start real life. But one day last spring, my phone rang and on the other end was John LaFontaine, a hockey coach at the elite boarding school in Faribault, Minn., Shattuck--St. Mary's—where Sidney Crosby played for one season nearly a decade ago—telling me he'd like Cade to come play for him. I scribble down his words: "Quick hands. Good in corners. Sees the ice."

Cade has asked us to let him go to Shattuck. Every time he asks, I laugh it off. He goes to Blake, a small Minneapolis prep school where he is getting a first-class education. He isn't going anywhere. "Mom, can you please think about it?" he asks again on the way to practice.

"No, Cade, we've talked about this."

"Mom, please. You have talked about this. I think I have something special. I want a chance to see what I can do."

"Cade, this is a game. You're going to go to college and have a career. That's what Dad and I want for you."

"Exactly," he says. "That is your dream. That's not my dream. Please let me go."

How did we get here? What happened to the little boys who have been coming to my house since they were five? There are toothbrushes in my bathroom with their names in fading permanent marker: Connor, Bauer, Johnny, Justin. When they first skated, wearing equipment twice their size, they felt like gladiators. We buckled them in seatbelts and drove them to rinks where we strapped on helmets and cheered even when they shot and swung their sticks so high they missed the ice by a foot and landed on their butts. For years I have watched them navigate boy world—taunting, teasing, bragging. There, they learn the difference between a diss that stings and one that wounds. They find the strength to say, I've had enough. They find the courage to say, I'm sorry. They discover the comfort of trust. They forge deep friendships. They figure out who they are. At home on the Internet, I find a comment from Shattuck hockey director Tom Ward about overprotective parents. "What happens when they finally let go is that the kid evolves," he says. "They go from boy to man."

There have always been rivalries and grudges in Minnesota hockey. There are basic philosophical disagreements, too. After Jack's injury, those who are determined to refocus the game on skill instead of scrappiness—and thus make it safer—prepare for a fight from the old-schoolers who want to protect hockey's tough-guy traditions. But there is no fight. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, in Brooklyn Center, Minn., an advisory committee that includes MSHSL administrators and heads of the coaches' and officials' associations from around the state recommends tougher penalties (for both boys and girls) for three of hockey's most dangerous infractions: checking from behind, boarding and head contact. Each will now draw at least a five-minute major. The National Federation of State High School Associations approves the changes, which so far only affect hockey in Minnesota, in less than 24 hours. Just like that, in the middle of the season, hockey's power brokers have changed the game at the high school level. Teams will have to learn to win with skill and finesse, not violence. Hal Tearse, safety chief of Minnesota Hockey, which adopted similar changes on Jan. 22, calls it "a worthy endeavor. I suspect there will be pushback."

Stephen Yurichuk, known to his friends and colleagues as Yuro, is one of the best youth development coaches in the game. He's also Cade's coach on the summer AAA Reebok Nationals team. Yuro is a Canadian hockey lifer. He participated in his first line brawl at the age of 11, and he speaks nostalgically about the good old fighting days. But he also believes those days belong in the past. As the head coach at the Northern Educate Hockey Academy, a private school near Minneapolis where students get 480 hours on the ice a year, he does not tolerate back talk, chirping or cheap play. "It's all about respect," he says. "My philosophy is to play tough and eliminate the man from the puck, with skill. I want to win—the right way."

Like all good coaches, Yuro's influence over his players is immense. Donavan Meyer is one of his kids, a ninth-grader at the Academy who also plays on the Nationals team. His family lives in Dallas, and until this year his mom spent the last two summers driving 20 hours straight most Thursdays to get him to Nationals practices, then 20 hours back home on Mondays. In August, his grandparents rented a home near Minneapolis so Donavan, 14, can attend the academy full time. "It's stressful. I miss my parents," he says. "But hockey is my life." At 5'9" and 180 pounds, he is a physical player who spends his share of time in the box. "I never intend to hurt anyone," he says. And he knows Yuro would bench him for a malicious hit. Still, he envisions an NHL future with contact. "When you're out there, it's like war," he says. "If someone hits my goalie, or one of my players, it sets me off." He has enforcer potential, and he knows it: "If my coach says that's your job for the team, I'd do it."

"Even if it means you end up broken?" I ask.

Donavan is a friend of Cade's. Off the ice, he is quiet and introspective, with a passion for history and the manners to clear his own plates. He pauses for a long time when I ask this question. "If that's what my coach wanted me to do," he says, "I'd do it."

For me, there is nothing to do but hope. I hope that the adults in charge of the game can alter the force field. After the recent changes, referees call the games tighter, coaches argue less, parents yell less, and the players hit less by the boards. But this is hockey. Jack's buddy Keegan is also a physical player. Traumatized by Jack's injury, he vows to hold himself to a higher standard. But in a Breck varsity game against Moorhead on Jan. 14, in a scrum in front of the net, he hits a kid after the whistle blows and is ejected. "He was really upset," says his mom, Amy. "He felt like he let Jack down." Sue Olin, whose son Conor Andrle is a Breck captain, says the boys were impressed by Keegan's reaction. "He was yelling loudly as he was ejected," she says. "But he was not yelling at the refs. He was yelling at himself. A psychological shift is under way."

After a week and a half at HCMC, nurses are able to sit Jack up at 90 degrees, pushing him past pain and nausea, in the beginning for five minutes, then 10, finally an hour. The first time he is wheeled out of his room and feels comfortable sitting up, he asks to stop at a window. "I never knew how interesting it could be to watch cars go by," he says.

Leslie isn't there. As a mother, she has witnessed so many firsts in the life of her son: first word, first step, first goal. She wishes she had seen this first, but there will be others. Jack wants to get back to Benilde. He wants to go to dances. He wants to go to college. He wants to work in the hockey industry in some capacity. But first he will have to learn to maneuver a contraption with his upper arm to brush his teeth. "The hardest part has been realizing that I've got to start from scratch," he says.

On Jan. 23, Jack is transferred across town to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. He spends grueling days working to reclaim his life. He will be there until at least April. Leslie says the family is "elated" with Jack's progress and that he has "some sensation in his hands." His ultimate goal, he tells me: "I want to skate again." He is not fooling himself. "He knows what he's facing," says Blatherwick, "but he holds out hope that something could change."

It is a only matter of time before it finally does. While neuroscientists around the world work on brain radios, exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by human thought, life goes on, for Jack and for all our boys. They have dreams. Some will come true. Others will not. We can only guide them. "Kids get so passionate about sports," Blatherwick says. "We think it's trivial in the long run. But kids don't.... They think it's superimportant. If they want to succeed, they have to work at it. So for Jack, that's the most important skill he has learned as an athlete—to know that any success he's going to have, any happiness, he's going to have to overcome hard times and work on it really hard."

Jack agrees. "You don't know what you have until you lose it," he says. "But it's still life."

Game on.

"THE INJURY I HAD, IT WAS A FREAK ACCIDENT," SAYS JACK. "THAT KID WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING. HE PLAYED ME THE RIGHT WAY, AND AT THE WRONG TIME, I TURNED."

JUST LIKE THAT, HOCKEY'S POWER BROKERS CHANGED THE HIGH SCHOOL GAME. TEAMS WILL NOW HAVE TO LEARN TO WIN WITH SKILL AND FINESSE, NOT VIOLENCE.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DEANNE FITZMAURICEFAMILY TIES The author's son, Cade (far left), is a talented forward who played pickup games with Jablonski (above) when the boys were younger. PHOTOPhotograph by DEANNE FITZMAURICETHE NEW NORMAL Jack, now in his wheelchair, navigates the halls at the rehabilitation facility flanked by his parents, Leslie (left) and Mike, who have put their careers on hold. PHOTOGENEVIEVE ROSS/APCOMMUNITY SPIRIT Support for the Jablonskis has been strong, and Jack has received get-well calls from several NHL stars. On Jan. 10, Max helped the Wild honor his big brother at center ice.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)