• HEWAYWE PLAYTHE GAME

BY·KAREN S. SCHNEIDER

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

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. "Kidde, 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. Photographs by DEANNE FITZMAURICE 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. y husband and I have an under"Hitting is fun," Raye standing about attending our son chimes in. "I wish girls could Cade's hockey games; Sometimes check." he has to sit with me. He prefers My kids like to laugh at me. to stand alone at the glass behind 1 don't mind. It's better than the net. There Peter can focus on the usual bickering. Who gets the game, which is why he comes. the remote? Who gets the front I come to watch Cade. And talk seat? They make noise. I try to to the other moms. But mostly ignore it. So when I walk into I shiver in freezing rinks across FAMILVTIES the kitchen on New Year's Eve The author's son, Cade (far left). Is a talented Minnesota to be with Peter. "You forward who played pickup games with know, we have no life,~ I tell him. morning, I immediately notice Jablonski (above) when the boys were younger. the quiet. I open the refrigeraAnd 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 tor. Petergives me a kiss. He Cade, 14; and our daughter, Raye, 13, gets in the way. And he'll gaze reaches across me to get some eggs. "Do you want cream cheese'?" at me.apologetically and say, "Next week." he asks Cade, "No, thanks," Cade says, keeping his eyes fixed on Still, the real trouble comes from the things Peter tells me when me. Weird. I turn back to Peter. "Did he take his vitamins'?" I ask. he is not looking at me, and they always start like this; I forgot to ''Yes,'' he says. He doesn't move. I am blocked. between his arm tell you. . .. . and the door. "I forgot to tell you," he says. Something in his voice "1 forgot to tell you, Cade was asked to play in the Elite tournais strange. He looks at me. Cade and Raye are both staring at me ment next weekend." now. Peter touches my hand. "I forgot to tell you, I told one of the Texas dads that his kid can "Jack Jablonski broke his neck last night." 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 exJACK JABLONSKI-known as [abby to his friends and the kids like Cade who grew up skating with him on the lakes around our 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 homes-is not the first boy to break his neck playing this game. the puck. We don't. We're too high. Do you see?" Now it's my turn But he is the first one whom we who have kids still in Minneapolis to look him in the eyes. "Yes," I tell him. youth and high school hockey programs have watched grow up. I have no idea what be's talking about. From the minute we first nudged our children onto the ice, we
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..--..---------------- ..---------- ..---------- ..----......--..........------~-to five, and you say, O.K., get up. But he didn't," says Mike. "1 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, 1can't move,' I almost collapsed on top of him."
D e first days after Jack is injured-he th. is paralyzed from the elbows downnews spreads on Facebook and Twitter, from hockey family to

kne'w 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 cheek, 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 worldJabby 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 sophomore playa period or two with varsity to get him more ice time. scored the first goal of the game and played through the Since Minnesota State High ''MSHSL) rules limit aplayer 'Y 24 hours, Leslie knew -d to sit and play more , 'wts' varsity in its - {,igh later that '-'wanted to ~iayvee]

my eyes pop open at 3 a.m., my heart pound. ing as 1think of Jack opening his own eyes and wondering, in that second between sleep and wakefulness, if it was all a bad dream.

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 playa 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 "9 be out for a while and then come back ',l@-y," Zacksays.Two days later he vis" {or the first time. "Right when 1 ',just broke down," he says. "I I couldn't stop." .me else in our community, Zack .g, The fund-raisers and prayers ,.It for days he struggles to focus in /.'He can't sleep. Neither can I. My heart .ces. Nerves underneath my skin jump and twitch. I tak~ Ambien to sleep, but even then,

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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 ~

or weeks Jack's

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]ack'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

"THE INJURY I HAD~.II WAS AFREAKACCIDENT," SAYS JAEK.:"THAl.K·'O, ,:' ;WAS, DOiNG THE RI.GHr' ,.,'., THINB.'HEPLAYE'OlME'THE·, RIGHJWAV,ANO'ATIHE . WRONG TIME, I TURNED."
rHE NEW NORMAL lack, now In his wheelchair, navigates the halls atthe ehabilitation facililyflanked by;hls parents, leslie (left) md Mike, who have put their careers on hold.

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 bands are amazing. That's why I am number 13.... Or that's why 1 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 1 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 incapabl,e 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'tblame 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 J ablonskis could turn back time, they would, for both boys. "I don't blame him," says Leslie. When the boy carne 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. "1 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." t borne, I read an e-mail from Blatherwick about a letter he is writing to Let's Play Hockey, a youth hockey newspaper. Blatherwick workedjvirh Herb Brooks to train the 1980 U.S. 01ympic 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-toteach 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 directi~#, we must take to change this game." '{r2 Across the city, wt: 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 thirr,~about: protons. At the Large-Hadron e~ll,W:~i;{)utside Geneva, the European Organization for Nuclear Research has created a system of tunnels more than 16 miles long i1;1 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 oftwo 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
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. ,.·.:;~ds the glass and yell at their sons to on Take him out! and by coaches who scream at their players to Take the body! and by everyonewho 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 awaywith what they can: slashing, throwing elbows, taking runs from behind. The !kst time I heard a dad scream, "Kill that kid!" in reference to Cade, he was a Mite. sW 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: Youdon'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, Ll\un,,:outwhen his stick breaks in the,miatlJ.'lkof tournament to get him a a replaceriit;ht-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."

the first week dies down, her own despair and exhaustion show. "1 love hockey," she says: "1 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, 'Morn, 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."

ing, 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 horne on the Internet, I find a comment from Shattuck hockey director TornWard about overprotective parents. "What happens when they finallylet go is that the kid evolves,"he says. "They go from boy to man."

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y 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. 1let 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 overdriveof

nmymind, 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 Faribauit, Minn., Shattuck-St Mary'swhere Sidney Crosbyplayed for one season nearly a decade ago-telling me he'd like Cade to corneplay for him. 1scribble 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 goinganywhere. "Mom,can you please think about it?" he asks agai:n 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'regoing 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 likegladiators.Webuckled them in seatbelts and drove them to rinks where we strapped on helmets and cheered evenwhen they shot and swung their sticks so high they missed the icefb'ya foot and landed on their butts. For years I have watched them navigate boy world-taunting, teas-

here 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 saferprepare 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 Asso-

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ciations 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."

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been strong, and Jack has several NH L stars. On Jan'. 10, Wild honor his big brother at centerke,

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 fuII 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." or 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. [ack'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 serum 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."

tephenYurichuk, 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 oni, and he ~\,~PI1U~"ULlI!;U':;"lIy:.about good old ~he he also yes those As d coach Educate-Hockey Acadschool near Minneapolis 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

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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. "1 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 se~n 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: "1 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. o

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