Jack Jablonski juggling college life, LA Kings internship while chasing hockey dream

Josh Cooper
Photo courtesy Aaron Poole/LA Kings
Photo courtesy Aaron Poole/LA Kings

LOS ANGELES – The sun hits the right side of Jack Jablonski’s face.

He sits in a courtyard at his apartment complex a few blocks from the University of Southern California’s campus and he can’t get enough of the rays.  

As a quadriplegic, Jablonski’s body can’t properly regulate his temperature. So he’s often cold – except when he’s enjoying the heat of the SoCal sun.

“It’s nice I can be out here in the 70s and 80s,” Jablonski said of the moderate temperature in Los Angeles.

Nothing about Jablonski’s situation is fortuitous – at least from a big picture standpoint.

His accident, where he suffered a spinal cord injury while playing hockey as a sophomore with Benilde-St. Margaret's in 2011 took away his ability to walk.

He has no feeling from the nipple line down and the sensation in his arms is scattered.

But Jablonski has figured out ways to maximize his life, taking his misfortune and turning it into a positive.

Whether it was by starting the world’s largest stick-tap a year ago or creating a charity for people with spinal cord injuries, Jablonski – the Minnesota native who has turned into an inspirational figure in the hockey world – has taken his disability and figured out ways around it to realize his potential as a human.

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In Los Angeles he has done just that as a second semester freshman at USC majoring in communications with a sports media minor. Not only is he getting an education he’s also trying his hand as a Los Angeles Kings communications intern.

“I know my situation is not the normal one with all the attention I was fortunate to get,” Jablonski said. “At the same time you can still chase your dreams. Just because you end up with paralysis doesn’t mean your life is over.”

JACK THE INTERN

At quick glance, Los Angeles Kings COO Kelly Cheeseman and Jablonski have little in common. Cheeseman helps run a professional hockey organization. Jablonski recently graduated high school. 

But they had one very important similarity. They were both Red Knights at one point in their lives. Cheeseman also played hockey at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, and when the school and Twin Cities community united around Jablonski, Cheeseman took notice. 

“When the incident happened with Jack, everybody rallied around it a few years ago and it became a big part of our school’s community and the family of BSM, and then it became a much bigger hockey story at that point and kind of the family of hockey came together,” Cheeseman said.

Jablonski connected with Cheeseman last spring. The two were put in touch by Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey coach Ken Pauly. Cheeseman told Jablonski to take it slow and figure out college. After he started to understand the rhythms of his college routine then he could reach out to Cheeseman again about Kings work. 

“My first point of advice, was, ‘Just get in and start working on getting your education and then come back to me after your first semester or two. Then we’ll talk about internships assuming you’ll be out here for three or four years,'” Cheeseman said.

The randomness of the connection is not lost on Jablonski, Cheeseman or those they’re close with. Several instances had to move their way for this to occur – such as Cheeseman starting as a ticket sales account executive in 2001 and rising up to his current perch with the organization.

Or Jablonski even being accepted to USC – Staples Center being just a two mile drive from campus. 

“What’s happened with (Jack) isn’t fortuitous, it’s a tragic thing that’s happened but at the same time there’s a lot of things since it happened that have fallen into place in a way,” Pauly said. “I’m enough of a mystic to see some sort of hand in this, but with Kelly out in LA and Jack at USC? Give me a break. Who’d ever thought of it? And Kelly would at least be in the position at least to give him the opportunity to do something.”

After Jablonski started settling at USC, it became clear that communications was a good path with the Kings. Not only was it his major, he had experience as far as podcasts and radio shows in Minnesota. 

“I think he has some good insights with our team, so we’re just kind of getting his feet wet at the moment and we’ll see where it goes and get him involved with some cool projects. He has to work like every other intern and earn his stripes,” Cheeseman said.

Jablonski’s game night responsibilities involve all sorts of tasks such as gathering information and giving it out to reporters, coaches, broadcasters and players. After the game, Jablonski’s name is on the quote sheet as one of the interns who helped mine sound bytes from players.

“Jack has his challenges and they’re very real but he also knows he has a job to do,” Pauly said. “Kelly’s going to give him a chance but it’s not going to be a free ride and Jack knows that and I think it gives it more integrity that way too.”  

Jablonski doesn’t want any preferential treatment. If he did he would have called up Jeremy Roenick, Michelle Beadle, or any of his other famous contacts to help him find this type of job. Instead he went a path that a lot of kids take to get an internship.

“I know I can always go back to what’s happened in the past and pull strings if I need to, but I don’t want to. I want to learn like everyone else,” Jablonski said. “I want to experience things like everyone else and live that life as much as possible because what’s happened in the past isn’t going to last forever. It runs out and I’d like to learn as much as possible because it’s not always going to last for me.” 

JACK THE STUDENT

Jablonski may work for the Kings, but he may not be at USC if not for another California NHL team.

When Jablonski was in the hospital many teams visited him – one of which was the Anaheim Ducks. On their trip Jablonski was told about the “Swim with Mike” scholarship – an organization that’s involved with Southern Cal, along with other schools. 

“Swim with Mike” is an organization whose mission is, “To provide financial resources for advanced education that pave the way for physically challenged athletes to overcome their tragedies and realize their full potential.”

At the time, it was a long-range thought. But as college became more real, Jablonski started to seriously consider the scholarship and Southern Cal.

“I learned my body wasn’t going to last in the cold forever. So I needed to get out of Minnesota at that sense,” Jablonski said. “I fell in love with the college here. I had to get my grades up to get into here and get my test scores up, but all in all it worked out and I was fortunate to get the scholarship.”

Jablonski is currently taking 12 units and not a full 16. He mixes class with six hours of therapy per-week.

For a 10 a.m. class he wakes up at 7:15 a.m. to get ready. Some people volunteer to take notes for him. He also has a live-in caretaker who he says is essentially his roommate.

“The simple thing is to have someone with me to help take notes, grab things, fill my water up, etc.” Jablonski said. “A lot of people who don’t live with someone who is paralyzed or have someone close to them that’s paralyzed don’t understand the extra time and extra effort it takes just to do something in a normal day.”

Jablonski’s day doesn’t just involve class. He’s also pledging the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, which he says is a top-two or three fraternity on campus. As he rolls in his wheelchair, there’s a paddle wedged behind the seat.

“Pledging is obviously very time consuming, weird hours of the day, you’re up late. You’re up early,” Jablonski said. “This semester has been pretty crazy. There’s no free time at all and when you do have free time you’re putting it into studying and books. All of it combined is a lot of work but at the same time that’s what college is about. I don’t mind it. I’ve always been a busy person.” 

Even in a wheelchair, Jablonski just blends, which he’s perfectly OK with. USC’s campus is eclectic with all different types of students, which was part of the draw to the school. 

“I definitely try to keep it behind closed doors, but I’m not shy about it if people ask,” Jablonski said about his celebrity. “I’ll definitely answer any questions.”

Sometimes classmates figure out who he is when they search for him on Twitter and see he has over 50,000 followers.

“They’re like ‘who are you?’” he said.

Because of his situation, Jablonski says he’s on a four-and-a-half year graduation plan. It’s not about finishing quickly, it’s just about finishing, which would be an accomplishment considering how far he’s come.

“As you can see there’s no reason to leave,” he said, while looking around at the sun drenched courtyard around him.

Photo via Jack Jablonski on Twitter
Photo via Jack Jablonski on Twitter

CONTINUING HIS LIFE

Jablonski says his health has been “good lately.” He’d like to drop a few pounds, but he hasn’t needed to take an emergency room visit in three years now. 

When he first left the hospital after his initial injury, he found himself back with infections, which hampered his recovery.

He still has hope that medical science will advance enough to where he can continue making progress. Through rehab, he says he has been able to keep his muscle mass in his legs, his thighs and his upper body.

There’s also been some recent progress. 

“Internally I’ve been able to develop lower back muscles and regain that along with stomach muscles and activate some muscles in the lower body and the major muscle groups, which is huge showing that there’s something there and it’s not all gone, that something still connects,” Jablonski said.

Like most 20 year olds in college, Jablonski wants to have a good time and “go do crazy stuff and eat crazy” but he also understands he can’t really do that.

“Especially here on Figueroa you have every fast food restaurant known to man,” he frowns.

He eats around two-and-ahalf meals per-day.

He has some Special K for breakfast, and a light lunch like sushi, followed by a generally regular dinner. 

“For me it’s a lot easier to intake than get rid of it and work it off because for me to burn calories is not just run around for a half hour. It’s a lot more work,” Jablonski said. “It’s a lot of watching what you eat to stay healthy even though you can still eat somewhat normal.”

For a lot of people his age, keeping such a regimen would be tough. But Jablonski has this maturity about him. Through his injury and the people he’s met since, he’s become more worldly and understanding of his purpose in life.

If he’s frustrated by what happened he doesn’t really show it. Those who have seen him since the early days of his accident can’t help but be impressed with how he’s kept up his progress.

Recently the Minnesota Wild came to Los Angeles to play the Kings and defenseman Ryan Suter, along with other team members conversed with Jablonski about his life out in California.  

“Now that he’s moving on with his life and he’s trying to make the most of it. It says so much about what kind of person he is,” Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He wants people to treat him like any other person.” 

With a college education and an NHL internship, Jablonski seems to be moving towards somewhat of a career in the game.

And even though his body may not let him play anymore, he still has a hockey mind.   

After the injury, Pauly used to give him some assignments – like analyzing his team’s power play and such. Jablonski took it upon himself to go above and beyond, like texting Pauly between periods of games he’d watch.

The two would sometimes message back and forth with each other about hockey in between midnight and 1 a.m. 

“He’s able to see that big picture and break things down,” Pauly said. “He’s thinking up the road and ‘I know I’m never going to play again, but I love this so much. What can I do with it?’” 

Jablonski still keeps up with his charity, but it’s tougher with a class schedule. He makes sure to point out that he doesn’t see a cent from it.

“I’m not doing it for myself,” Jablonski said. “I want to be a part of medical advances in the future.”

With all that’s happened to Jablonski over the last several years, it’s easy to forget he was a pretty good hockey player, who believed he had a good shot at going Division-I.

Part of the outreach was because so many players saw themselves in Jablonski.

“His thing is he was one of us,” Suter said. “We all play hockey just like him when we were his age. It could have happened to any one of us.”

But the draw to Jablonski is also because he’s still a hockey player. That mindset hasn’t changed – and it’s what makes him such an inspirational figure. He’s able to stay in the game in spite of his injury.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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