Monday, March 12, 2012
Herb Brooks, the legendary coach of the “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team, got his start playing hockey for Johnson High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his team won the state hockey championship in 1955. He later coached the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team to three NCAA championships in the 1970s, before coaching the United States Olympic team to its upset over the Soviet Union and then on to the Gold Medal in 1980.
On Saturday night, as part of the award ceremony for the Minnesota Boy’s State Hockey Tournament, the annual Herb Brooks Award was given to Moorhead high school senior Michael Bitzer as “the most qualified hockey player in the state tournament who strongly represents the values, characteristics, and traits that defined Herb Brooks” (here). As Herb Brook’s son and grand-daughter came to make the award, the students and families in the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Catholic High School (BSM) section began chanting “USA, USA”, as did the crowds nearly a quarter-century ago at the Olympics. The gesture clear touched Brooks family members, who turned and waved to the BSM fans.
For Benilde-St. Margaret’s, they had just witnessed another “Miracle on Ice” that began just weeks ago, went through the sections tournament, and continued on to the state championship.
Two months before this weekend, BSM sophomore Jack Jablonski (“Jabby”), while playing in a junior varsity hockey game, was checked from behind and suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury. In a previous post here on Mirror of Justice, I described how the Benilde-St. Margaret’s community had come together in prayer and support for “Jabby” and his family.
The doctors say that Jabby will never walk again. But Jack already has made more progress and regained more range of motion in his upper body than his doctors had expected. And if anyone has the courage, hope, and commitment to a miracle, it is Jabby. Back in 1980, as the seconds counted down to the United States' upset victory over the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics, the excited announcer shouted: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Inside the BSM community, and the larger Minnesota community that supports him, people remember Jabby’s own take on this: “I don’t believe in miracles. I rely on them.”
Outside of Jack Jablonski and his family, the impact of the devastating injury fell hardest on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights hockey team, all of whom knew and loved Jack as their team-mate. While BSM has a strong hockey tradition, success for this year’s team already was an uphill climb. Most of BSM’s athletic teams compete in Class A. But the Red Knights hockey team competes in Class AA, which includes the largest schools in the state, some of which graduate nearly a thousand students each year. BSM is among the smallest high schools in hockey’s Class AA, with fewer than 250 graduates each year. And Class AA features the state’s traditional powerhouses in hockey, with such regular champions as Minnetonka, Edina, Eden Prairie, and Duluth East having more than one state championship. The Red Knights had not won a state championship since 2001, and that had been in the Class A division.
While the season had been going reasonably well, Jack’s injury was a difficult thing for these young men to handle. Coach Ken Pauly explained (here) how difficult it was to deliver the news that Jabby likely would not walk again: "To give them that reality ... that flew in the face of the hope that they had." Never a hard-hitting team, the Red Knight players became even more hesitant about delivering checks to opposing players, quite understandably given the injury that Jack had suffered. Moreover, the Red Knights dad been pegged as a fast scoring team, but with a weak defense that gave up too many goals. But then, over the last few weeks of the season, with the wise and seasoned help of head coach Pauly, along with a sports therapist, the Red Knights began to come together as a family and to gell as a team.
At the sections hockey tournament, BSM faced the Minnetonka Skippers, one of the largest high schools in Minnesota and ranked No. 2 in the state for hockey (here). Before the game, Jabby returned and came into the locker room in his new motorized wheel chair. And as he watched, the team upset Minnetonka to make it to the state finals for the first time in four years. We’ll never forget those pictures of Jack Jablonski wheeling along the ice holding up the section trophy.
On the first night of the state hockey tournament, on Thursday, BSM faced the Edina Hornets, which have won more state championships in Minnesota history than any other high school. Once again, Jabby was in the stands cheering on his team. Despite a higher seeding and great expectations for Edina, BSM stayed even with the Hornets throughout the game, with goals by Grant Besse and Dan Labosky (here). Then as it appeared the game would go into overtime with a tied 2-2 score, BSM senior Christian Horn scored the winning goal with only 24 second left on the clock. On the second night, against the Lakeville South Cougars, the BSM Red Knights turned on the power and took over the game from the beginning, finishing with 10-1. (Although falling short that night, Lakeville South’s Justin Kloos was later honored as “Mr. Hockey,” the top award for a graduating senior in hockey (here).
On Saturday night came the championship game against the Hill-Murray Pioneers, another smaller Catholic high school located near St. Paul, but which has won five prior state hockey championships. It was a hard-fought, very physical game. But three times when down a man due to a penalty, resulting in power plays for Hill-Murray, BSM junior Grant Besse broke away to score goals -- an unprecedented short-handed hat trick (here) Altogether, Besse went on to score five goals that night, placing him in storied history for Minnesota state hockey (here). Together with the phenomenal play of BSM junior Justin Quale as goalie, who just would not allow other teams to score, and such other standouts as junior Dan Labosky, the Red Knights slowly built up a lead. For a team that had a reputation as weak on defense, BSM allowed just five goals in their final six games, and goalie Quale had a .961 save percentage in the state tournament (here).
Throughout the past two months, and in the championship game, the Red Knights team played with a patch on the front of their jersey saying, “Jack Jablonski in Our Hearts.” As the time in the final period of the championship game came to 13:13 – “13” being the number on Jack Jablonski’s jersey – the BSM crowd chanted, “We Love Jabby.” And Jack Jablonski was there again, with his family in a stadium suite just above the BSM cheering section where we all remained on our feets throughout most of the game (here).
With the score at 5-1 for Benilde St. Margaret’s, as time ran down and the outcome was clear, the crowd began chanting, “We Just Saw a Miracle.” Against all expectations, the Red Knights won their first state championship in Class AA.
No one doubts that many challenges lie ahead, for Jabby and those who love him in the BSM community and beyond. But for now we’ll be celebrating what came to be know as the “Season of Hope.” As BSM hockey coach Pauly – who later was named state hockey coash of the year – said after the championship (here): “It’s been emotional, it’s been psychological, it’s been spiritual, it’s been life-changing. And those are things you can’t always say about a season.”