Family of paralyzed hockey player calls for safer play

Max Jablonski
Max Jablonski, 13, speaks to reporters Thursday Jan. 12, 2012 about his brother, Jack Jablonski, who was paralyzed during a high school junior varsity hockey game on Dec. 30, 2011. Jablonski's family is calling on the various governing bodies to do a better job enforcing existing rules, in an effort to make the game safer.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The family of Jack Jablonski, the 16-year old Benilde-St. Margaret's student who was paralyzed during a high school hockey game, is calling on the sport's governing body to better enforce existing rules.

"If we don't do anything, there's going to be a parent up here 12 months from now, in my shoes," said Jack's father, Mike Jablonski, during a news conference Thursday at Hennepin County Medical Center, where Jack is being treated.

The family says USA Hockey, the nation's governing body for amateur hockey, doesn't need to enact any new rules to the sport. It merely needs to do a better job of enforcing the existing rules, specifically with regard to checking and boarding. Boarding is when a player is thrown into the boards — a tactic that is more for intimidation than for trying to separate a player from the puck.

"Jack said this morning, 'It's not about the hitting; it's the way we hit,' " noted Leslie Jablonski, Jack's mother. "We need to teach people how to hit properly. We're not trying to take that out of the game, it's just you play the puck."

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While their request might seem simple, the Jablonskis acknowledge they're seeking nothing less than a culture change within youth hockey. Referees are boxed in, they acknowledged, by the criticism from fans, coaches and players that they're not 'letting the kids play' if they call too many penalties.

During a Benilde-St. Margaret's school junior varsity game Dec. 30, Jablonski, 16, was checked from behind and into the boards. Surgery repaired the bones around his spinal cord, but the procedure confirmed that the cord itself was severed and irreparable.

Jablonski does have some use of his right arm and doctors say he eventually will be able to hold up his head.

Lou Nanne, Jack Jablonski
Former North Stars general manager Lou Nanne visits Jack Jablonski at Hennepin County Medical Center. Jablonski, 16, was paralyzed after being hit from behind during a junior varsity hockey game on Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. He is a sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret's School in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Photo courtesy of Christine Hill, HCMC

Ken Pauly, head coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's School, says that hockey culture has changed in recent years towards getting a big hit on someone and checking for its own sake, rather than favoring athletic finesse.

"Playing that way cannot be rewarded," Pauly said. "Coaches and programs are competitive people and they want to win. But if they know they can't win playing that way, then you'll see a change in the culture."

Pauly has noticed a difference in the games since Jablonski's injury; referees have been calling penalties more closely, he said, and he's heard fewer coaches dispute calls. Pauly believes that heightened awareness is proof everyone can learn and teach safer ways to play the game.

The Jablonski family launched a website Wednesday, Jack's Pledge, where players, coaches and associations can voluntarily commit to several safer play tactics, including a promise to never "hit to hurt," check from behind, or cross-check.

In the first 12 hours of the website's launch, more than 1,000 people had signed the pledge, according to Paul Larson, president of the Minneapolis Storm youth hockey association, who helped create the pledge.

Jablonski's 13-year old brother, Max, also spoke at Thursday's news conference, as did hockey great Lou Nanne and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.