With 24 seconds to go and the score tied 2-2 in Thursday night's Class 2-A state high school hockey quarterfinals, Benilde-St. Margaret senior Christian Horn saw an opening. Edina's defenders were out of the way, Horn slammed the puck past goalie Willie Benjamin, and the crowd erupted.
Despite what Benilde Coach Ken Pauly said was generally a poor performance on the ice, the goal enabled the Red Knights to eke out a win, extending the team's emotional season for at least one more game.
Up in the stands among the 18,001 fans, Benilde sophomore Jack Jablonski sat in a wheelchair wearing his number 13 jersey, a checkered red and white blanket covering his legs, paralyzed after a check from behind during a game earlier in December.
He was cheering too, surrounded by friends and family.
Jablonski's mere presence last night was inspiring, Horn said after the game.
"I was the last one to walk into the locker room and the guys were cheering for me and everything. And he came into the locker room about two minutes later, and it was probably 10 times louder, just because of the fact he came in," Horn said. "It was good to hear."
Jablonski's fans and schoolmates felt the same way. Benilde student Biz Emmer was in the stands too.
"I came to watch the team and see Jack and everyone come together to support him," she said. "I think he's stayed super positive throughout the whole thing and has a really good attitude about it."
Jack Jablonski's injury led to an immediate change in the rules for high school hockey in Minnesota. A hit from behind, a check into the boards or head contact often meant a two-minute penalty. Now it carries a mandatory five-minute major penalty-which continues even if the other team scores.
It also helped prompt a hockey safety summit Thursday in St. Paul, convened in part by the Herb Brooks Foundation. Among the participants were University of Minnesota head hockey coach Don Lucia, former U.S. Hockey Team member Rob McClanahan, a former member of the U.S. Hockey Team, and John Bittner, a past president of the Minnesota Boys Hockey Coaches Association. All called for changes in a hockey culture that over the years has come to emphasize force over skill.
Benilde forward Nick Lauth says players are careful to avoid the penalty box ---and especially hurting someone else. He says he and his teammates are now more likely to pull back if they're about to run an opposing player into the boards. But at the same time Lauth says everyone is bringing more energy to the game because they want to win for for their injured teammate.
"We've played harder," he said. "More determined. More heart. [We] just want to win it more."
While there's no doubt Jablonski is an inspiration to his teammates, hockey parents are quick to point out that it took plenty of sweat and talent for Benilde-St. Margaret's to get to the semifinals.
"I think from the very beginning of the year, everybody knew that this team had the capability of getting here," said Dan Johnson, whose son Jonah plays defense for Benilde. "They struggled in the middle of the year when the incident happened. But the team, actually in the last month, they really started gelling."
Jack Jablonski is likely to be watching from the stands again tonight, as his teammates -- all wearing a number 13 patch on their jerseys -- take to the ice against Lakeville South in the tournament's semi-finals.