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Team Captain

Team Captain
Photo by TJ Turner/Sidecar

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When Leslie Jablonski’s son, Jack, suffered a spinal-cord injury in a hockey game in December 2011, the Jersey-born public-relations maven suddenly found herself in a situation where no amount of spin could sugarcoat the news. So she put on a brave face and applied herself fulltime to a new assignment: making sure her son—and her family—had the emotional, financial, and spiritual support to move forward.

On a recent afternoon, Leslie Lynch Jablonski paced the immaculate kitchen in her Minneapolis home, sighed, and repeated her request to the Duluth-based medical-supply firm. She had called three medical-supply companies so her injured son, Jack, could stay in Duluth with the Benilde-St. Margaret hockey team. Last season, he played varsity; this season, he helps coach.

Finally, after three hours of pressing menu buttons, holding, and reiterating her needs to a series of intractable team members, she gave up. Absently tugging the Tiffany heart toggled at her neck, she agreed to rent the equipment for the obligatory month (when all she needed was one day). She hung up and moved on.

The only constant in Leslie’s days is such negotiation, most of which is just as frustrating. But they’re managed in stride by this sleep-deprived, immaculately dressed, artfully accessorized woman.

Like many mothers, Leslie traditionally juggled her career with schedules and logistics for her family of four. But ever since Jack was checked into the boards and severed his spinal cord in a hockey game on December 30, 2011, she put her public-relations business on hold. The details are ever complicated. Mobility is always an issue.

The latest? Acclimating her younger son, Max, 14—who broke his leg in two places playing hockey in Hibbing this past December—and caring for her husband, Mike, who had hip-replacement surgery a week later. All of which prompted Jack to quip, via Facebook: “Mom, you’re the only one in the family who can walk.”

Leslie’s friend, Ann Gooley, has helped with the family’s housekeeping, snow shoveling, multiple moves, and temperamental Scottish terrier, Mr. Murphy. After 13 months, Gooley still is amazed by Leslie’s grace as she bears the unbearable and manages the unmanageable. “For Leslie, each day presents a different obstacle and a new challenge that most of us can’t even imagine,” says Gooley. “How does she keep going? How does she get up each morning and tackle the day?”

“If Jack can do this, I can do this,” explains his mother. “When I think of everything that’s been taken from him—of how he’s lost everything that meant the world to him and how brave and determined and upbeat he still is most days…. If I think about everything he goes through just to get up and get out of bed, it doesn’t seem so hard for me.”

Jack’s life-altering injury has prompted support akin to a cult. At first, the outpouring of love was kid-driven; legions of classmates wearing scarlet Benilde-St. Margaret’s jackets and “Jabby” paraphernalia followed him everywhere.
But soon, adults, too—from Benilde-St. Margaret, Carondelet Catholic School, and greater Minneapolis—embraced the cause. A year later, they continue to raise money, run errands, stay with Jack if Leslie must run out, tend the website (www.jabby13.com), drop off meals, sell out galas, and—until he broke his leg—ferry Max to hockey practice and games.

Hockey mom Lisa Collins says parents want to shoulder part of the load because the Jablonskis’ situation is relatable. “Anyone who has a kid who plays hockey, or any sport, knows it could have happened to them,”  Collins says.

In year two as the state’s most prominent human-interest story, the journey of Jack Jablonski—who has surpassed all medical predictions while studying prodigiously to keep up with his junior class—resonates far beyond Minnesota. He maxed out his Facebook friend limit at 5,000, has 51,000 Twitter followers, and there have been 2 million hits to his CaringBridge site, where his mother posts regular updates.

WCCO-TV reporter Esme Murphy, whose son plays hockey with Max, says the unprecedented outpouring of support is due to Jack’s sterling attitude, solidarity in the State of Hockey, and his mother’s considerable talents as a spokeswoman. Then, too, there’s the telegenic factor.

“Jack is just so good-looking. Such an incredibly handsome kid—that megawatt smile, the twinkle in his eye,” Murphy observes. “How can anyone not be rooting for this likable kid, especially when he’s trying so hard?” Before the accident, the Jablonskis banked tremendous goodwill with all who know them, Murphy says. “And since the accident, they have worked tirelessly for two compelling causes: safety in hockey and spinal-cord-injury research. And Leslie is just a beautiful writer. Her CaringBridge updates receive thousands of hits.”

Like her son, Leslie is charismatic. Murphy remembers her package for WCCO’s New Year’s Day 2012 newscast, 72 hours after Jack had been paralyzed. A composed Leslie addressed the camera full-on and said she had a message for the 17-year-old junior who had checked her son from behind just after Jack scored the game’s first goal.

“I forgive you,” she said.

Says Murphy: “They have exhibited such incredible grace and compassion for the kid who hit Jack. Not only did they forgive him—and immediately—they have gone out of their way, all along, to express their concern for his well-being.”

Hockey mom Suzanne Tema says Jack’s injury hasn’t altered Leslie’s concern for others. “It isn’t ironic that Leslie was born on Valentine’s Day. She pretty much radiates good-heartedness....toward everyone and everything. She even has a name for every squirrel in the neighborhood and feeds them daily. “We call her St. Francis,” Tema says. Jack agrees. “My mom is a saint. She does so much for me and for everyone else. I don't know how she does it. Her positive attitude keeps me going.”

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