It’s a wet January night in L.A. Jack Jablonski is in the back of a Honda minivan on the elevated express lanes of the 110 Freeway heading downtown. He is singing along to Suzanne Vega on KROQ, his neighbor Drew driving.
“You can go faster,” he tells Drew, who, like most locals, is not practiced in heavy rain.
Drew drives into Crypto.com Arena’s VIP parking and flashes a credential, and the pair head straight to the media dining room to eat with other L.A. Kings employees and press. Most everyone greets Jack, who responds enthusiastically with a fist bump or high five. Drew collects Jack’s chicken and rice from the Chinese buffet and helps him eat it. After dinner, they take the elevator to press row, where Jack is an insider. His gaze alternates between the hockey game far below on the ice and an NFL playoff game on his computer.
“Hockey is a brotherhood. In today’s individualistic culture, there are few things people pursue in common. It’s one of the last places where people put the group ahead of the one.”
—Ken Pauly, Varsity Hockey Coach, Benilde-St. Margaret’s
As the third period winds down, Drew accompanies Jack to the men’s room to change the bag that collects Jack’s urine. Later, they descend to the locker room for postgame interviews with players and the coach. At roughly 11 pm, Drew secures Jack’s wheelchair in the aging minivan that will take them home, down the 110 to the 105 and finally over empty streets to Jack’s apartment, where his weekend attendant will help him get into bed.
If 10th-grade Jack Jablonski—a four-sport athlete and an up-and-comer on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey team who first took to the ice at age 3—could have peered a decade into the future, would he have been satisfied? Working around the greatest hockey players in the world would have seemed like a helluva consolation prize. He might even have been awed that he made it there by his mid-20s.
“All I cared about was hockey,” he recalls.
Hockey returned the favor by taking Jack down physically, then mentally.
A decade after Jack Jablonski’s notorious injury on a high school hockey rink, the most notable aspect of his existence is how intertwined it remains with the sport that tried to take everything from him.
There and Now
“Jack’s life is really, really hard, but he’s positive and doesn’t hate the world.”
What is it about this story that so captured a state and a sport, and why do Jack’s suffering and triumphs continue to resonate? Last September, Ethan Glynn, a freshman football player for Bloomington Jefferson, was paralyzed during his first high school game. Six months later, his name is virtually unknown outside a small community of intimates, while “I ♥ Jabby” bumper stickers still hang in businesses around the Twin Cities.
“I don’t get it,” Jack says. “It started with a hashtag on Twitter, #jabs, from the captain of our hockey team. Twenty-four hours after the injury, I’m on the front page of Yahoo, and it’s trending nationally, and famous people are tweeting at me, including Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, even [Wayne] Gretzky. It’s surreal, in a way.”
The notoriety rankles some. The Athletic’s national hockey writer Michael Russo says every time he writes about Jablonski, he hears from readers with “Jabs fatigue” who ask why this high school sports martyr gets all the attention. When Jack came out last August, Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse questioned Jack’s public statement, implying it was a form of grandstanding.
“What I’d say to Patrick or anyone,” says Russo, “is I went out to L.A. and was heartbroken. [Jack’s] motives are pure. He wants to help people.”
Jablonski, 27, graduated from Benilde with his class in 2014. He attended USC on a scholarship for athletes who experienced catastrophic injuries. Throughout college, he was a PR and communications intern for the NHL’s L.A. Kings, which evolved into a full-time job after he graduated in 2019. Jack’s more than a decade past that day on the St. Louis Park rink, and his life has settled into a routine.
He faces the odd dichotomy of being a very fortunate unfortunate person. As tough as his life is, it is worse for many victims of spinal cord injury.
“I’m privileged, but normal life still taunts you,” he says. “I loved college, I loved my frat. Then my brother comes, and I’m watching him living the life I’m supposed to be living. You’re watching yourself, but not experiencing it.”
He’s talking about his younger brother, Max, 24, who also graduated from USC and lives up the 405 Freeway in Brentwood, with most of the young USC business grads.
Jack lives 18 miles south, in Hermosa Beach, close to the Kings in El Segundo and near where its players reside. He lives in a one-bedroom ADA apartment in a small wood-and-stucco complex on a virtually treeless street a couple blocks from the ocean.
His place is open concept but crowded. The living room doubles as a bedroom for his primary caretaker, Danny, a Filipino immigrant (now a U.S. citizen) in his 50s, who has been with Jack since college. A movable clothes rack bisects the living room and serves as Danny’s closet. There’s a modest kitchen, a bathroom, and Jack’s bedroom, which is largely undecorated, furnished with a specialized bed, dresser, mirrored closet, and flat-screen TV. The place is dim on the day I visit, most of the lights are off, and there’s little sense of the bright L.A. morning.
“If you don’t have paralysis, you don’t realize everything that goes into the day,” Jack explains. “If I need to be out the door by 9 o’clock, I have to wake up at 6:30. Bathroom, showering, changing, breakfast,” all facilitated by Danny, who works 12 days out of every 14. “Then I go to PT or work. It’s all very planned out. Is there someone to help me with lunch or the bathroom?”
It is Monday morning, and that means physical therapy. Just before 10 am, Danny pulls the van into a strip mall in a modest suburb called Lawndale. It’s cold by L.A. standards, and Jack is trying to warm up in the van since his injury saps him of the capacity to regulate his body temperature. (As a result, there are only a few cities where he can comfortably live, Minneapolis not being one.)
This morning, he barely resembles the handsome yet boyish teen in the 2011 hockey photos. Jack’s grown from 5’8″ to 6’2″ and filled out. (He would have been an imposing figure on a rink.) Unshaven for days, wearing a white hoodie and shorts, he rolls into NextStep Fitness off Artesia Boulevard, which specializes in “affordable rehab” for people living with paralysis.
Steve Miller Band is playing on the audio system. Jack dissects the Vikings elimination from the playoffs with a therapist, while another rolls his arms and then places him in a harness. He’s wheeled onto a ramp where a device lifts him slightly above a treadmill, where he “walks” for the better part of an hour, just under a mile. It takes four people, one manipulating each leg, one keeping his core straight, and one operating the machine. He cannot feel his legs but recognizes the vibrations through his torso.
Seeing him out of his motorized chair, one is struck by his helplessness, the vulnerability at an age most men are at their physical peak.
“Boundaries go out of the picture, privacy,” he says. “Bodily functions are the toughest.”
The sedentary nature of paralysis leads to atrophy, and the only way to stave it off is physical therapy. At first, Jack spent four hours a day at it—occupational therapy, weight lifting, and exercises to build muscle.
“With paralysis, what you get back physically in the first 18 months is important,” he says. “After that, it tends to plateau.”
Now it’s mostly about strength and more refined control, he says. At present, he’s down to four hours per week.
It’s a 15-minute drive up Sepulveda Boulevard from Jack’s place to his office, the Toyota Performance Center, where the Kings practice. It’s a modest building with three ice rinks, a sports bar, a bunch of locker rooms, and a suite of offices for the team. Jack’s title is digital media content specialist, and he manages content on lakings.com and podcasts and works on social media.
The NHL is a universe of global talent, both on and off the ice, but it is also Minnesota-centric. Kings COO Kelly Cheeseman played for Ken Pauly two decades before Jack.
“When Jack moved to USC, Coach Pauly asked me to talk to him about an internship,” Cheeseman recalls. Jack got one that lasted four years. “He’s excellent on TV, podcasting, publishing.”
Though the job affords Jack access to some of the world’s best athletes, he has other aspirations: “I love [producing] content, but I have an infatuation with the management side, decision-making that leads to a team’s success.”
It’s not a slam dunk, and Cheeseman seems to acknowledge that, talking up Jack’s prowess in content creation. Player personnel roles typically begin in scouting, which requires long hours and constant travel, not a lifestyle in sync with a spinal cord injury. The path for Jack is unclear.
“He has something to give the sport,” says Russo. “He has talent. If you’re smart enough, you can work yourself up. It may need to be something nontraditional. He needs a champion to give him that first break.”
Jack has plenty of those. His injury has made him among the most connected off-ice 20-somethings in hockey, but with a sort of imposter syndrome. He describes a sense that sympathy plays a role in every professional kindness he receives and that people perceive him as a burden, which makes him reluctant to ask for much beyond the essentials.
Yet the pull of hockey is relentless. Two nights a week, Jack works as an assistant coach of the Jr. Kings, an L.A. superteam of high school sophomores, ranked sixth in the nation. Jack can’t be near the ice for long, so he greets the players from his chair as they emerge from the locker room, then watches practice from an enclosed public viewing area.
“I do their film and have meetings with the players, talk to them,” he says. “I can relate to them at that age, the anticipation and chemistry.” They are the exact age Jack was when he was injured.
Jack’s social life consists of a group of hockey friends and college buddies, most of whom live north of the 10 Freeway, nearer to his brother. They go out to eat, to sporting events and concerts, but not as often as Jack would like because he feels bad asking Danny to make multiple hour-long trips to L.A.’s west side and back.
Last summer, Jack reached out to Russo, just months after Russo penned a 10-years-after feature on Jack, who says he respects the writer more than anyone in the media and considers him a friend.
“I was slow in getting back to him,” Russo recalls. “I feel bad about that now.”
There were several 10-years-after articles—in the Strib, The Athletic, L.A. media. All were upbeat. Jack had achieved much, despite it all. There were promising medical breakthroughs. His foundation was making a difference. He was content, was hopeful, had been redeemed.
The reality was, he was in the midst of the worst two years of his life.
“He said he was gay and wanted to come out and wanted me to tell the story,” says Russo. “I’m a 48-year-old man, and no one had ever [come out] to me.”
Jack had reached a point of no return. He was on dating apps, talking to guys. He had also kept himself in the spotlight, as any Google search could validate. He was vulnerable to being outed or blackmailed.
“I want[ed] to control that narrative,” he says. “Tell people who have been on the journey with me.”
Russo flew to L.A., spent a day with Jack, and published the story a couple days later. It was, for Jack, the end of 15 years of wrestling with himself, which culminated in suicidal ideations during the isolation of the pandemic.
“Straight people can’t relate to what it does mentally to you,” Jack explains. He describes the gauntlet of a decade gaining a footing with paralysis, only to realize he had a second peak to scale. “Talking to a therapist, looking in my parents’ face, telling my brother, telling the public. I didn’t want to have to work on myself so much anymore.”
He wondered if he had the strength to do it.
An increasing number of gay people come out during high school, the median age now under 20, according to Hudson Taylor, who leads Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to making team sports more welcoming to LGBTQ people. Yet many kids do not wake up immediately understanding their sexuality. There is a period of mental testing and questioning, measuring themselves against peers and out gay people, coming to terms with what could be, for many, an unwanted reality. It can take days, months, or years.
Over a decade of comparing himself to people like him, all Jack saw were straight people. “I defy every single stereotype of what a gay guy is,” he says. The inevitable question is: Did a life in hockey—before and after his injury—contribute to Jack’s lost decade, unable to live as he truly was?
“I view sports culture in general as having roots in high school teams and parents,” Taylor says.
“In high school hockey in Minnesota right now, it’d be very awkward to be an out gay player,” says Max Jablonski. “You’re in the shower with six other guys at once. There’d be so much talking behind your back. Especially at that age with the immaturity. It would make it very uncomfortable, and I’m not even factoring in other teams using it while on the ice.”
Yet Jack doubled down on hockey after his injury. So coming out meant risking his family, his job, his friends, his entire reality.
“The fear is that people will turn on you, reject you. I had kept [the façade] up so long,” he says. And reactions ran the gamut. “Coming out was rocky. The look on my dad’s face when I told my parents—it will always haunt me.”
He says Max, in particular, appeared betrayed that Jack had kept it from the family for so long. After, they barely acknowledged it for nearly a year.
The one place he found solace during that period was work.
“It has been amazing, so great. I’m so lucky,” Jack says. “No one treats me different. I was very scared of that because it’s hockey.”
Yet hockey still has a problem. The NHL has been intentional in asking its teams to host Pride nights during the season. The events are promoted to LGBT communities to foster inclusivity and for the obvious economic value. Teams wear special jerseys in pregame skate-around, rainbow tape is applied to sticks, decals are applied, etc. Jack was invited to Minnesota for the Wild’s pride night in March and traveled back to Minnesota for the event. He would make the traditional “let’s play hockey” call over the PA and commemorative jerseys would be worn by the team, to be auctioned off to benefit Jack’s foundation.
But at the pregame skate-around the only person in the building wearing a bright blue Wild pride jersey was Jablonski. The players had apparently decided as a group to opt-out. Mike Russo revealed on KFAN the next day that Russian NHL players were wary of a new Russian law criminalizing the promotion of homosexuality. Russian national players, including those on the Wild, were said to fear arrest when they returned home for the offseason, or that their families might be harassed by state authorities.
But no public statement was ever made by the Wild about the change, though the team did reaffirm its ongoing commitment to LGBT inclusivity initiatives. Some close to Jack felt the night put him in a humiliating position.
The LA Kings’ pride night, later in March, came off as planned, with players skating in pride jerseys. But several non-Russian NHL players on other teams declined to wear Pride jerseys citing religious conviction. The league’s Pride nights were becoming notorious for player opt-outs.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged the league had perhaps failed to synch its corporate initiatives with player sentiment. He said the NHL needed to respect player choice and would rethink how it uses players to promote LGBT inclusivity. (It should be noted the league does not empower its players to opt-out of promotions that salute America’s military or topics like racial inclusivity.)
Luke Prokop, the sole out gay NHL (minor league) player, commented, “Everyone is entitled to their own set of beliefs and I think it’s important to recognize the difference between endorsing a community and respecting individuals within it. Pride nights are an essential step towards fostering greater acceptance and understanding in hockey. … As someone who aspires to play on an NHL team one day, I would want to enter the locker room knowing I can share all parts of my identity with my teammates.”
Jablonksi declined a subsequent interview on the topic.
All of which perhaps explains why there is only one out gay man in the United States’ five major sports leagues. According to Taylor, based on even the most conservative data about the prevalence of LGBTQ people in society, “There should be hundreds of gay and bisexual athletes in men’s pro sports. But the risk-reward calculation still tilts toward the closet.”
Seven months after coming out publicly, Jack has realized none of the worst-case scenarios but remains isolated.
“I feel like a unicorn,” he says. “I act straight, so how does someone know unless I advertise it? I don’t have [many] gay friends. I’m so late getting into it.”
Though he is currently dating, his paralysis makes it a struggle.
“The injury takes away everything except what is in your head, but your body doesn’t react. It’s horrible,” he says. “You have to find [a partner] who doesn’t care or is willing to work with it, and that’s very tough.”
Learning to Fly
Sexual function is just one of the challenges for people with spinal cord injuries. They cannot regulate their core, their blood pressure, their body temperature.
“People are organisms, not just a bunch of individual parts. You can’t damage one organ system and not affect another,” explains V. Reggie Edgerton, a systems biologist and researcher at the Rancho Research Institute who served as the director of the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at UCLA for more than five decades. His current focus is restoring functions in people affected by spinal cord injuries, using neuromodulation technologies to stimulate the spinal cord.
“We have seen significant functional improvement in all our subjects,” he says. “We’re currently working to see how far we can take them—how many systems can we get to recover?” Edgerton says the trials have already disproven the long-accepted truism that functional nerve signals cannot pass through an injured cord.
“We are at the place of the Wright brothers when considering the potential of this,” he says. Currently, the technology, SpineX, is limited to focused FDA trials, but Edgerton is hopeful that a device is just a few years from broad use. The initial objective of the trials is improved bladder control. Jack, like many paralyzed people, is prone to urinary tract infections from the tubing that drains his bladder. A UTI caused him to develop sepsis in 2021.
See, wellness is tenuous in paralysis. “Small issues can become fatal,” says Edgerton. “A cold, a UTI. We tell all our patients to be alert, move. The most important thing you can do is keep your health. A skin lesion could take you down.”
The SpineX trials were a recipient of funding from the Jack Jablonski Foundation, which has raised $3.5 million since it was founded a year after Jack’s injury. It hosts annual golf and wine events, plus a gala co-hosted by the Minnesota Wild. Jack receives no monetary aid from the foundation, but he did qualify for one of the SpineX trials. “Jack regained the ability to grasp a cracker and dip hummus. He’s picking up grapes. This could translate to a hairbrush, a key,” says Christel Mitrovich, an L.A.-based clinical kinesiologist who worked with Jack. “Jack is superman. He makes it look easy.”
Jack currently can’t wiggle his fingers but moves them by moving his wrist. SpineX allowed him to pinch and grab with more precision, feed himself a bit, hold a wineglass.
“With fingers, I could make myself lunch, do my laundry,” he explains. “I could live somewhat independently.”
And there’s the question of a sexual existence.
“A high priority for most paralyzed individuals is to regain sexual function,” says Edgerton. “Not many [researchers] are working on it, because it is awkward to discuss, but it is promising.”
The Day No One Can Forget
“I was always busy; summers were two different tournaments every weekend for two different teams.” His dad, Mike, now retired from a career with 3M, introduced him to athletics, and it just took off. “All my friends were in sports. I didn’t have school friends. Sports were my life.”
Looking back, he believes he would have played Division I hockey, been drafted into an NHL farm system, “but I don’t think I had the knowledge of the work ethic that [was] required to get to the NHL,” he observes. “I live with regret because of it.”
Mike and Leslie Jablonski live in a tasteful Mediterranean-style house on a quiet street south of Uptown, the house Jack and Max grew up in. Jack spends the holidays and a couple weeks in summer here now. On a day in early January, he is in the living room, under a heat lamp, in his winter uniform of sweatpants and a fleece top. The family French bulldog, Marty, barks obsessively.
Our conversation is familiar territory, and he covers it matter-of-factly. He has heard all the questions before, anticipates the follow-up, and answers it before you ask.
On December 30, 2011, Benilde was playing Wayzata in a holiday tournament at the St. Louis Park Rec Center, its home ice. “I had the puck; it was a 2 on 2. I entered the zone going toward the net. The backchecker is always taught to backcheck to the guy without the puck. I didn’t know they had a third guy on me because I had the puck. I got cut off going to the net, so I took the puck and turned away to look for someone else [to pass to]. The third guy ended up following me; he was coming in full blast and hit me from behind. He shouldn’t have been covering me. I didn’t expect a hit, so I wasn’t braced or prepared.” Jack was pushed into the boards, known as “boarding.”
He didn’t get up.
“I’ve seen worse hits,” says Pauly. “It is not uncommon in this game—adolescent males, a lot of pent-up aggression.”
“There was a surreal feel. Shock, despair, confusion, hesitancy,” says Zack Hale, a close friend and former teammate of Jack’s who now is a high school teacher in Culpeper, Virginia. “Players [of both teams] kneeled on the ice and prayed.”
“I had nothing,” Jack recalls. “I couldn’t move my head because I broke my neck. I was a dead body with pain and consciousness.” A few hours later, in the hospital, “I thought I’d be back to normal in two weeks.”
Jack was paralyzed from the upper chest down. His arm function was modest, his hand function nil. He was left-handed, but that was the side with more paralysis. “At 16, it was very tough to face. You’re just getting independence, and it’s taken away.”
Jack’s story received copious media attention, and the community was moved. 3M held a fundraiser. Benilde parents helped renovate the Jablonskis’ house to accommodate Jack’s wheelchair, and friends started a medical trust fund. Wild president Matt Majka’s son played for Wayzata, so he was intimately familiar with the situation. The Wild dedicated Hockey Day in Minnesota to Jack that winter and put on a telethon on his behalf, which raised $150,000 for the family.
To add to the quixotic nature of that season, Benilde beat Hill-Murray to win the state tournament.
As for the young man who boarded Jack, he visited him in the hospital, and for a while they texted. “I wanted him to know I didn’t have a vendetta, didn’t blame him,” Jack recalls. “We kept in contact a bit, through year two or three. Eventually I broke it off because I just didn’t want to hear from him.” The boy ended up quitting hockey after the season. “He couldn’t handle it mentally, what he had done. He would message me; he was struggling with it, but it was hard to handle because look at him and look at me.”
The Game Blame
High school hockey, virtually nonexistent outside a handful of states—most notably Minnesota, Michigan, and in New England—is regarded by many as the apotheosis of teenage male aggression. Football is violent, but it’s played without walls, at lower speeds.
Mike Russo was unprepared when he first watched a Minnesota high school game.
“I was blown away by how regularly there are dangerous checks, checks that have been legislated out of college and the NHL,” Russo says. “The rinks are smaller; the game is very fast. I was nervous watching my cousin’s boys play because every check, someone might not get up.”
Jack’s injury did and didn’t change youth hockey in Minnesota. After it, boarding, or checking from behind, became a five-minute major penalty (rather than a two-minute minor) with the possibility of ejection. But “I still see terrible hits from behind,” says Pauly. “We have a short memory.”
Pauly instructs Benilde players that when they see an opponent’s numbers, “Hold him, don’t hit him.” He says neither Benilde nor the Minnesota State High School League used Jack’s tragedy to produce teaching materials, such as a video, to be shown to young hockey players.
Max followed his brother into Benilde hockey, and Leslie found it hard to watch; she says she gets a sick feeling every time she enters a high school ice arena. She is an outlier in her family.
“I don’t blame the game,” says Max. “I would never say ‘Don’t play hockey’ to my kid.”
Jack says even his 16-year-old iteration signed a mental waiver. “Shit happens, and unfortunately it happened to me, but I don’t think the game is too dangerous.”
When Jack Jablonski dreams, sometimes he’s outside himself and paralyzed. But other times, he’s in a body able to do the things it did back when hockey had only shown him its icy embrace.
I asked if he ever considered leaving it, finding a life more in tune with who he is and what he is capable of, rather than one where ice and cold are more than a metaphoric barrier. He said no, that hockey is enmeshed in every aspect of his being.
Jack’s lifelong friend Zack Hale came closest to an explanation that a person who never played the game could understand. “I don’t think there is anything else in life that can fill the void of a hockey player’s love for the game. The camaraderie of being on a hockey team is unlike any other team sport. It’s exhilarating, it’s risky, it’s unimaginably complicated. Those who play it at a high level become borderline obsessed.”
Mine was a stupid question, in hindsight, one that Jack had already answered weeks earlier when he told me that long before he was paralyzed, before he knew he was gay, nothing mattered more to him than the cold, hard game that runs through Minnesota boys like ice in their veins.
A Question of Policy
One of the difficult, nonexistential questions facing victims of spinal cord injuries is the cost of care and life complexities it creates. The Jablonskis have been fortunate and resourceful but still face daunting financial questions as Jack enters his second decade as a quadriplegic.
Mike Jablonski estimates it costs in excess of $100,000 a year in atypical expenses for Jack to manage his life. They include a wheelchair-capable van, medical supplies and drugs, physical therapy, extra costs for travel, and Jack’s attendant, Danny, whose expense is borne by a catastrophic insurance policy owned by the Minnesota State High School League.
The Jablonskis want to draw attention to the policy because they believe it is out of date and disadvantages the families of sports injury victims like Jack and Ethan Glynn, the Bloomington Jefferson freshman paralyzed in his first football game last fall.
“It’s nothing more than a mason jar of Band-Aids,” Mike says. “It is a very outdated insurance. Any family [relying on it] is looking at financial ruin down the road.”
They point to several tenets of the policy, including a lifetime limit of $2 million and an annual spending cap of $100,000 as not reflecting current medical costs. Plus, there’s a clause that states that once an injured person earns $30,000 a year, they are no longer considered fully disabled and are ineligible for “special” coverages, including a $75,000 wheelchair van. The terms create a disincentive for injured athletes to become independent, which Mike contrasts with the NCAA’s catastrophic policy, which has higher limits and no income-based disability clause.
MSHSL executive director Erich Martens says the league’s insurance broker considers the policy competitive and deems it unique that the MSHSL provides coverage at all, since many state leagues do not.
Martens stopped replying to emails when asked for additional details, including the number of injured athletes currently drawing on MSHSL insurance and the prevalence of paralysis-inducing injuries in Minnesota high school sports.
For now, the Jablonskis face the likelihood that coverage for caregiver Danny will run out before Jack is 35 and that they will have to self-manage the near six-figure expense to replace Jack’s old van. “We’re going to need a GoFundMe,” says Leslie, “or maybe sell our house.”