Benilde-St. Margaret’s looks back on dramatic hockey season

| March 1, 2019 | 0 Comments

Grant Besse of Benilde-St. Margaret’s scores one of his five goals against Hill-Murray in the 2012 state championship game. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Where were you when Jack Jablonski got hurt?

That’s a question most Benilde-St. Margaret’s hockey boosters likely could answer.

Grant Besse sure can. A junior at the St. Louis Park school at the time, he remembers getting a call Dec. 30, 2011. That was the day Jablonski, then a sophomore at BSM, was hit from behind during a junior varsity hockey game against Wayzata. He crashed into the boards head first and became a quadriplegic after suffering a severe spinal cord injury from the impact.

Besse felt “confusion and panic” as news of the accident spread around the BSM community. Besse was a forward on the varsity hockey team and had gotten to know Jablonski, now a student at the University of Southern California, at the start of the school year.

Today, BSM fans might ask a different question: Where were you when Grant Besse scored five goals in the Class AA championship game of the 2012 Minnesota State High School League Boys’ Hockey Tournament?

After wondering whether the team, ranked in the top 10 in the state at the start of that season, might fall apart after Jablonski’s tragedy, long time BSM Coach Ken Pauly saw just the opposite. The Red Knights rallied around their fallen teammate and drew inspiration from how courageously he was handling his disability. That led to one of the most intriguing storylines in state hockey tournament history, in which the Red Knights won their first Class AA title after moving up from Class A a few years earlier. BSM had won Class A titles in 1999 and 2001, also with Pauly as their coach. This year, the Red Knights fell to Edina 5-1 in the Section 6AA finals Feb. 27.

The Red Knights came together during the second half of the 2011-12 season and set their sights on the state tournament. After winning the Section 6AA championship, they started believing a state title was possible.

Besse, the team’s leading scorer who would win the state’s Mr. Hockey award the following year and go on to play hockey at Wisconsin, played the biggest game of his life when he scored all of his team’s goals in a 5-1 win over Hill-Murray in the finals. Three of his goals came while his team was shorthanded. No other player has done that in the 75-year history of the tournament.

“After Jack’s injury, I think we just kind of banded together,” said Besse, who had developed a friendship with Jablonski before the injury. The rallying cry became, Besse said, “Let’s win this for Jack.”

Before long, the slogan changed to “Let’s win this WITH Jack.” That happened because Jablonski started showing up at BSM practices in his wheelchair. He even would come out onto the ice. He did it in dramatic fashion moments after the Red Knights won the section title, with TV cameras filming the action. It created a rush of emotion that spread far beyond the arena.

Jablonski, who later started the Jack Jablonski BEL13VE in Miracles Foundation to support spinal cord injury recovery, could not be reached for comment for this story.

The momentum carried into the state tournament, when the Red Knights went up against Edina, one of the most successful teams in state tournament history, in the quarterfinals. BSM scored in the last minute to secure a dramatic 3-2 victory that players and coaches took as a sign of destiny.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Pauly, 54, in his 29th season of coaching hockey at BSM, and a social studies teacher at the school. “That place [Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul] erupted. … I think that really demonstrated to me how people really got behind these kids. I think it’s a journey that we took together as a team. But, I think it’s a journey that an awful lot of people went on with us from across the state and, quite honestly, from across the country.”

As much as the outside support helped, Pauly said the championship run began with a solid foundation of team leadership and faith. He points to Mike Jeremiah, the team chaplain who spent hours meeting with players and parents after Jablonski got hurt to help them through the crisis. He also credits team captains Jake Horton and Christian Horn, who were seniors that year.

“I was just blown away by their maturity and their outlook and how they handled all this stuff,” said Pauly, who belongs to Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale. “That’s why we were able to survive and thrive. I think we did the right things to get refocused, but we had a strong foundation to begin with, and that’s what helped.”

Besse still likes to reminisce about the state tournament and the championship he helped secure.

“It was a sweet experience and definitely something I’ll never forget,” said Besse, 24, who was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks and currently plays for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. “I’m still in awe that we were able to do that.”

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