Jack Jablonski won't let wheelchair stop his future

Like most young adults, Jack Jablonski is learning to live his own life and figure out what he wants for his future. Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

He missed so many things about the rink. Southern California offered ample distractions: the allure of a fresh start, the whirlwind of his first semester at a prestigious university, the idyllic weather, the sushi -- oh, the sushi. But when you grow up in Minnesota, hockey is life, and that was no different for Jack Jablonski.

So when he returned for his second semester at University of Southern California and landed an internship with the Los Angeles Kings, Jablonski took comfort in this familiar environs.

He didn't mind arriving early, preparing game notes for players and scouting reports for coaches and arranging credentials and seating charts for the press. He recognized the quiet ritual of pregame preparations, with each player taping his stick and tying his skate laces in ways that have surely become second nature. He remembered what that was like. He cherished that feeling again, of being a part of something bigger, a team.

He didn't even mind the smell of the locker room.

"Just to be back at the rink, it felt like home," Jablonski told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation.

Jablonski's own hockey career came to an abrupt end far too soon.

Almost four years ago, during a high school hockey game for Benilde-St. Margaret's, Jablonski was sent crashing headfirst into the boards and suffered a severe spinal injury. He was forced to undergo surgery to fuse his damaged vertebrae, after which his surgeon told the then-16-year-old he'd never walk again.

So now, instead of deking past defenders on the ice, like he did for so many years, Jablonski, 20, navigates among the thousands of students on campus in an electrical wheelchair.

Because he doesn't use his muscles in the same way as before the injury, Jablonski has a hard time getting and staying warm.

The sunshine and friendly climate of the Southland is part of why Jablonski chose to enroll at USC. Bundling up had grown to be a chore, so he was happy to swap heavy parkas and snow boots for shorts and flip-flops. It also helped that Jablonski earned a scholarship for tuition through Swim With Mike, a long-running fund that aids students who have suffered serious injuries or illnesses. The fact that USC is renowned for its strong communications program didn't hurt either, considering Jablonski, a communications major with a sports media minor, is mulling a career in broadcast television. Or in hockey management. He hasn't quite decided.

"I still don't know what I want to do -- coaching, management or [the] media side," Jablonski said. "I think my heart still says coach and management. I really do like that part of the game, but at the same time, it's a lot of fun talking about it."

In many ways, Jablonski is living the quintessential college life. The second-semester freshman recently "crossed" from pledge to active member of USC's Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity -- his "big" is a Flames fan from Calgary, Alberta -- so he's learning how to juggle the demands of school with those of his extracurricular activities. Sometimes, he feels bogged down by homework, but he doesn't appear overwhelmed. Some courses he likes more than others, and yes, he'll occasionally send a surreptitious Snapchat during class. Normal stuff.

But there are ways in which his college life is much different than that of an average student.

Jablonski has a live-in caretaker in a first-floor apartment amid one of the prime dormitories, one that encases a plush courtyard replete with an outdoor fireplace and chic seating. He has three students -- two undergraduates and one graduate student -- to assist him in classes and commuting. They transport his books, take fastidious notes and help him with eating -- if it's not something relatively simple that he can wrangle himself. He goes to physical therapy three times a week, another activity he must balance in an already-bustling schedule.

Sometimes he yearns for a bit more privacy, but overall Jablonski seems happy, upbeat and excited about this new chapter of life. Independence is what he craved, and he has that now.

"Going from high school in a household with your parents, you don't always make your own decisions. Being off at college, it's your choice to study now or do things later or go to the library here or go out to eat there," Jablonski told ESPN.com during a visit back in February. "That's something I've adjusted to in college. I'm an adult. ... I can make my own decisions and whether that means I need help doing things, they're still my decisions.

"Growing up is something that we all have to do."

It was a daunting change, sure, but an enticing one nonetheless for Jablonski. Many kids might shy away from moving halfway across the country to attend school, but that did not deter him, not even with the extra set of challenges a major transition like that entails.

On one hand, he is separated from a very large support system back in Minnesota. He's no longer surrounded by people who all know his story and what he went through.

But on the other hand, he's no longer surrounded by people who all know his story and what he went through.

"I love what I have back at home and the support and friendship there, but at the same time, it's a little nice to get away, come here and start fresh with new friends and meeting new people," Jablonski said during his first semester. "Getting to shape your identity here, it's refreshing."

Sitting on a red-eye from Los Angeles back home to Minnesota in October 2013, the fall of her son's senior year in high school, Leslie Jablonski knew what was coming.

She knew her son had fallen in love with USC, that he was probably already steeling his resolve, formulating a plan to make his case for attending. As a parent, Leslie was thrilled to see Jack find a school he was excited about, but she was terrified too.

How would this work?

After taking care of her son ever since the injury -- she quit her job promoting hair care products, saying, "That really doesn't matter to me anymore; there's more to life than shampoo and volume in your hair" -- she was left wondering who would assume the everyday tasks necessary to make her son comfortable. Who would answer if he called out at night in distress? Who would help shuttle him to doctor appointments and rehab sessions? Who would change his catheter bag?

The idea of her son shedding the safety net of their support system back home and embarking on this new life 2,000 miles away was a stark and sobering reality.

"I realized how hard it was going to be to get to that point and how much he had wanted it," Leslie told ESPN.com in a phone conversation last winter. "It was a whole mix of feelings, both positive and freaking out about how are we going to do this?"

Leslie lucked out in one respect. Through her contacts within the Swim With Mike organization, she had heard about an excellent caretaker named Danny Antonio.

Danny had served as a full-time live-in caretaker with a few other Swim With Mike families, though by the time Jack's future plans began to take shape, he was "out of the game," as Leslie explained it, working in medical sales.

To her delight -- and relief -- Danny was open to helping Jack. And when she talked to Danny and got a sense of his level of experience and professionalism, some of the anxiety subsided. She knew her son was in good hands.

But still, beyond the most immediate medical and logistical concerns, Leslie also wondered about how such a drastic change would affect her son. A true social butterfly, Jack had loads of friends and family back home, people who have known Jack from before and after his injury. Out in Los Angeles, he would be forced to forge an entirely new social network.

Would kids look at him and just see him a kid in a chair?

She knew that this was something out of her control, something that Jack was going to figure out himself. But it was something he wanted.

"I admire him so much for that," Leslie said.

Jack Jablonski is a popular kid on campus. He makes friends easily. Some students know how he ended up in a wheelchair. Some do not. And while the busy thoroughfares on campus can be annoying to traverse -- Jablonski still marvels at the near collisions of the ubiquitous skateboarders that buzz by daily -- they offer a refuge of sorts.

He hasn't had that sort of anonymity in some time.

Jablonski's former hockey coach Ken Pauly still remembers the lines of people waiting to talk to Jack and take pictures with him after the team won the state title in 2012.

"Jack's a celebrity here in Minnesota," Pauly told ESPN.com in February.

Pauly, known to many by his nickname from birth, "Buddha," has been coaching for almost three decades. He's seen almost everything. But nothing could prepare him for the first time he went to visit Jack in the hospital after the injury.

Pauly couldn't help but wonder how Jablonski would be feeling. Would he be angry? How can a kid make sense of such a harrowing, freak incident?

Pauly's concerns were almost immediately assuaged. There was Jack, head immobilized in a halo. And he was the same old Jack.

So Pauly wasn't shocked to see Jablonski make the bold decision to head to the West Coast and pursue his dreams.

"It didn't surprise me in the least from the standpoint of everything this kid has done from the beginning," Pauly said. "He's amazed me, ya know?"

Pauly has learned to just shake his head and laugh at this by now. Because if you doubt Jack on anything, he will usually find a way to prove you wrong.

Before Jack headed off to college, he would help Pauly on the coaching staff. He'd point out little things that maybe Pauly did not immediately recognize, usually personnel stuff. There was one situation in which Pauly recalled Jablonski being particularly dogged.

Jack had noticed a player on the team who he didn't feel was playing enough. Time and time again he would pump his tires, prod Pauly to play him more. Pauly finally relented. During a huge game against one of the top teams in the state, Pauly sent the kid over the boards. When the kid scored an important goal, Pauly saw Jablonski across the rink, beaming. Maybe gloating just a bit too.

"Let's face it, there are things we take for granted," Pauly said. "He's sitting in that damn chair and he's just watching people and observing."

So no, Pauly wasn't surprised to see Jablonski put that determination and relentlessness toward chasing his future.

He's an athlete after all, and that mentality hasn't changed. Just as all the great ones do, Pauly explained, Jablonski is looking forward to the next great challenge.

"Even though life may have bound him to that chair, I don't think he feels bound to that," Pauly said.

He doesn't.

Jablonski is adamant that he will walk again.

"I know I will," he said during a particularly rigorous rehab session last February.

He's realistic about the fact that he will not gain much more movement until there are significant changes in modern medicine. But he wants to be prepared for when those advances become available.

He wants to be in fighting shape when that time comes, and it's that athlete's mentality that helps Jablonski grit through some pretty grueling workouts.

Performing what might seem like relatively simple tasks -- lifting and lowering his legs, engaging his core muscles to support an upright position against a stationary wall, executing modified bench presses -- are challenging.

As Christel Mitrovich, Jablonski's clinical kinesiologist who specializes in neurological rehabilitation, places his heel over her shoulder and steadily guides his leg down to resting position, Jablonski's leg trembles involuntarily. Jablonski suffers these spasms, but no one quite understands what they mean or signify.

Upper-body mobility is something Jablonski has made significant strides with, so the modified bench press reps are done with relative ease.

When Mitrovich wants to test his trunk, she admits she isn't sure how this is going to go. Her fellow trainer, Alicia Villareal, stations herself behind Jablonski on a Pilates table, and they prepare him to do a series of sit backs.

She's pleased with the results.

"You're crushing it, kid," Mitrovich encourages.

Jablonski doesn't whine or complain. Sometimes he'll ask for help in grabbing a sip of water from his water bottle, a permanent fixture on the footrest of his wheelchair. Without even having to ask, Mitrovich and Alicia are deft at hiking down his shorts when they start riding during an exercise.

The only signs of resistance come when Mitrovich asks Jablonski about participating in the Swim With Mike triathlon.

"Not doing it," he says, firmly.

Jablonski isn't a fan of modified sporting activities for spinal injury victims. He has a similar reaction when asked about whether he'd like to play sled hockey.

"I don't want to play sled hockey. I want to play real hockey," he said.

Jablonski is not playing hockey. At least, not yet, but through the Jack Jablonski BEL13VE in Miracles Foundation he is helping to make strides in the paralysis and spinal cord injury community. (Recently, Jablonski's foundation pledged to donate $300,000 over three years for epidural stimulation research to the Mayo Clinic.)

But he is back in the game, and he's grateful for that.

It is actually through Pauly that Jablonski was able to secure such a plum internship with the Kings. Pauly also coached Kelly Cheeseman, the chief operating officer of AEG Sports, as a high school student at BSM. Cheeseman's father and Pauly helped form the area bantam program, long before the school became known as a hockey powerhouse.

Pauly reached out to Cheeseman -- "every one of us is kind of like one of his kids" -- and gave him the scouting report. Jack is a special kid, he said. He lights up a room with his personality.

And once Cheeseman met with Jablonski during the spring of 2014, he saw what everyone was talking about.

The internship, a streamlined program run by communications honchos Mike Altieri and Jeff Moeller, seemed to be a natural fit for the hockey nut.

Jablonski's knowledge of the sport and insight into the game is an asset. He can assist any stat-tracking operation with ease. From his already-extensive experience with the media -- both in talking about his injury and his foundation, and through his former radio show -- Jablonski has a keen understanding of how the whole process works. He can distill the important information and key in on quotes to feature in postgame notes.

Heck, he already knows a lot of players from visiting teams when they come through town to play the Kings. When his hometown Minnesota Wild made a trip to the Staples Center, Jablonski was holding court after the game with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The New York Islanders boast a handful of Minnesota natives, so he's popular in that dressing room, as well.

Most people in hockey know his story. But, Cheeseman says Jablonski is careful not to court attention in his gig. He's mindful that he is part of a team effort and that his cache cannot be used to shirk duties. He's an intern.

Still, Jablonski is so precocious that Cheeseman has to sometimes remind himself that he's still only 20 years old.

"It's funny. He's extremely mature and polished. He has a lot of detailed questions. You know he carries a different level of experience than what someone else his age goes through," Cheeseman said. "At the same time, he's still a kid."

He's a hockey kid at heart, though, and Cheeseman understands that well.

"Especially in the culture we grew up in, you live it and breathe it every day," he said. "For him, he had that taken away from him -- his ability to participate -- at an early age. But with that, he's developed an unbelievable relationship in the sports family, one that's bigger than just the local community."

It's those sort of relationships that Jablonski missed most in his first semester at USC.

He returned home to Minnesota with a newfound sense of independence (coming home at 3 a.m. on a Saturday while living at home was something he learned quickly not to do) and a hankering for home cooking (specifically, his maternal grandmother's Swedish meatballs recipe that his mom has perfected, served over quinoa) but also the desire to become more engaged when he returned the following fall.

These days, he has 26 fellow pledge class fraternity brothers with whom he has grown incredibly close after the semester-long process -- no hazing, he assured, just the garden-variety embarrassing skits and the like -- and a whole house full of friends just one block away. (One of the fraternity houses is already handicap-accessible; the other is going to be in the near future.)

"I think the biggest thing was coming from high school and being an athlete and growing up with a bunch of teammates, coming to college and not playing sports or being tied in with any athletic team, I felt like I was missing a base of teammates and brothers," Jablonski said. "Now, I have 140-something brothers that have my back."

Re-emerging himself in hockey has also provided that extra sense of belonging. It reminds Jablonski of why he fell in love with the sport in the first place, and why that bond remains so strong.

"It felt like there was a part of me missing, not being able to watch firsthand," Jablonski said. "Seeing athletes getting ready, preparing themselves, the smell, just being at the rink watching people, seeing people do something they love, it really resonates."