Benilde-St. Margaret's overcame a season of tragedy last night to win the Class AA state boys' hockey championship.
The Red Knights triumphed with a 5-1 win over the Hill-Murray Pioneers. Benilde-St. Margaret's players said the win was a tribute to sophomore Jack Jablonski, who was paralyzed in December after he was checked from behind.
View a photo gallery of Benilde St. Margaret's win over Hill-Murray.
Benilde-St. Margaret's scored two goals in the first period and another in the second. Each time, the overhead screens flashed an image of Jack Jablonski.
He sat in his wheelchair and head brace, covered with a red and white checked blanket. Jablonski smiled while his family jumped up and down and pumped their fists.
Once when the team scored, the Benilde-St. Margaret's student section turned their backs to the rink to face Jablonski two decks up. They chanted his nickname and shook signs that said "We love Jabby."
"I think a lot of people are cheering for Jablonski and not us just because all that," Hill-Murray junior Jason Lambert said in between the second and third periods.
Hill-Murray put up its first and only goal in the third period, and Benilde-St. Margaret's almost immediately responded with one of their own. A few minutes later the team scored another for good measure to make the final score 5-1.
Hill-Murray head coach Bill Lechner in part blamed himself for the loss.
"We came a little unglued tonight. Didn't mean to. We all — even the coaching staff, myself — we came a little unglued in moments and you can't do that in championship game," Lechner said.
Lechner said Hill-Murray was aggressive early, had opportunities to score and didn't. He said the team got frustrated and when Benilde-St. Margaret's started to score they felt like their backs were up against the wall. They never got rid of the feeling.
When officials handed out the first-place trophy to Benilde-St. Margaret's, the team skated to the wall of the rink near the student section. Players slammed into the wall in a clump with the trophy held high while their classmates screamed and beat on the other side of the boards.
All five of Benilde-St. Margaret's goals came from junior Grant Besse, who said he'd met that mark before, but never expected to repeat it in the championships. Besse said Jablonski was waiting for his teammates when they got back to the locker room.
"What he said to me, he just shook his head and smiled," Besse said. "But uh, he was excited, he was yelling, he was getting pumped up, so that just got all of us even more pumped up."
Senior forward Christian Horn said it wasn't just the team's feelings for Jablonski that propelled them to win — Horn said he and his teammates were moved by the public's reaction to Jablonski's injury.
"Random people just coming up to you and saying 'hey we're rooting for you, go get it done,' " Horn said. "It shows how close this hockey community is and how much people really care for one kid."
Benilde-St. Margaret's head coach Ken Pauly said the season was emotional, spiritual and life-changing — things that don't often happen in a hockey season.
"Coaches always speak in cliches about a kid growing up — but I watched a bunch of guys in front of me really grow in a million different ways as young men, in terms of caring about someone else, and not just putting words to it, putting action to it," Pauly said.
Pauly said he and the team have been pushing so hard to get to this point they haven't thought much about what comes next.
"In some ways the loser's a little more fortunate because they can experience a real emotion. Here, you win and you think — 'oh great.' And, 'now what?'" he said.
Next year, Benilde-St Margaret's is pulling out of the north suburban conference to go independent. They want to play a tougher schedule of opponents than the conference offers.