The True Mr. Hockey
A young man emerged from an orifice at the St. Louis Park Rec Center, the exit from the area also known as the Submarine. It doubles as the Benilde-St. Margaret’s (BSM) Red Knights locker room and stretches underneath the arched stands of the historic arena. It has been home to three state championship teams, two Mr. Hockey award winner and a number of conference and sectional championship clubs from BSM and St. Louis Park High School hockey teams.
The young man, a high school senior, is tall and lean with a friendly way about himself. As a student, he carries a 3.7 grade point average and is humble, patient, and respectful to an interviewer that was about to discuss something the young man likely would not be comfortable speaking about, and that is himself. Zack Hale is the subject of the interview and he is a three-year member of the Red Knights hockey team and also is Jack Jablonski’s closest friend.
Hale has been a mainstay on the Red Knights’ roster for three seasons while playing in the shadows of the 2013 Mr. Hockey award winner Grant Besse and several other Division I college hockey recruits. TJ Moore (Holy Cross), Dan Labosky (Colorado College), Spencer Naas (UConn), and Christian Horn (St. Lawrence) have all committed to play college hockey in that span. They have been vital cogs on Red Knights’ teams that Hale as been a part of and naturally, those players have captivated much of the on ice attention.
Hale was widely viewed as one of, if not the top freshman hockey players in Minnesota while playing for the Minneapolis-Park Storm Bantam A team. Along with his pal Jablonski, the duo had plenty of success appearing in youth hockey state tournaments at the Pee Wee and Bantam levels as members of the Storm. Hale was considered the key ingredient to those team’s success and offensive numbers were plentiful for the slick skating, intense competitor.
While those prolific offensive numbers have not followed him through his high school hockey seasons, his work ethic and humble character evolved with perspective, compassion, and loyalty. It has shaped a person that is the “True Mr. Hockey.”
A hockey player is born
Zack Hale is the third of four children to parents Todd and Amy, who were high school sweethearts while attending Southwest High School in Minneapolis, MN. Amy grew up an avid hockey fan cheering for Dino Ciccarelli and the Minnesota North Stars. She also had an appreciation for high school hockey and the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. Todd grew up playing hockey for Southwest High School and is your typical Minnesota guy who grew up playing and appreciating the game in the State of Hockey.
At a young age, Zack was playing many sports with soccer being at the top of the list. “I started playing all sports at a young age, mostly soccer,” Zack said. “My mom wanted me to get into hockey actually, and now my dad is the driving force behind that. I started playing (hockey) when I was seven.”
Among things discussed by Amy and Todd were the financial obligations to the game and the toll it can take on a family with two working parents. Both worked hard to make ends meet. Todd works a third shift as a machinist and Amy is a preschool teacher. Together, they worked to manage a family of four kids and the needs associated with that. Amy’s drive to expose her son to the game won over and eventually Zack was on the ice.
“I said, ‘let’s let him play, I will do everything. I will drive him to the rink and when Zack started playing his dad got more’…,” Amy’s voice faded. As she thought of her words Amy added, “He’s (Todd) a little more hockey nuts than I am now. I had to beg my husband to let him play.” For Todd, knowing the time and financial commitment to the game is big, he was a little more guarded in getting Zack into the sport.
“As much as I liked the idea, I didn’t know if it was a wise decision for us to take that leap into it,” Todd said. “Obviously, I love the game and he wanted to play it, from that moment I was absolutely hooked.”
At the time when Zack was getting fitted for gear to begin play, former North Star and Boston College standout Mike Fidler was developing and coaching hockey players in Southwest Minneapolis with Mike Jablonski, Jack’s father. The duo began coaching when Jack Jablonski and Mike Fidler’s son Miguel were four-years old.
While a number of boys had been playing a lot of hockey for up to three years with Fidler and Jablonski at the helm, Zack Hale caught the eye of Mike Fidler when he was first beginning as a player.
“Zack tried out, I think the boys’ second or third year and he was on another team and Mike and I were always looking for somebody to help our team. I see this kid on the ice and he just looked really aggressive and he had no skating skills at all, but he was just going a million miles an hour trying as hard as he could,” Fidler said.
“I looked at Mike and asked him who that kid is. Mike knew his name and I said we have to see if we can get him to skate with us,” Fidler said. “We went over to talk to Zack one time and he was just such a nice kid. He was really humble, he would barely make eye contact with me.”
Hale began playing with Fidler and Jablonski’s team. Eventually, a Fire team was created, one that garnered players from around the Twin Cities. The roster was loaded with big name talent that remain household names today. Tyler Nanne (Edina and Ohio State), Steven Spinner (Eden Prairie and Nebraska Omaha), Luc Snuggerud (Eden Prairie and Nebraska Omaha), Jack Walker (Edina and Victoria WHL), Keegan Iverson (Breck and Portland WHL), and Jack Sorenson (Wayzata) were all a part of the team.
Fidler noted that he and Jablonski wanted to give Hale the opportunity to develop with that group of players. Fidler recalled a conversation he had with Mike Jablonski. “I am going to let him skate with us because this kid is going to be really good someday,” Fidler said. “We just let him practice with us all year. Mike and I liked him so much that we said let’s just let him keep skating and he will get better and he did and he developed some skills. The kid always had a smile on his face. To this day, when I see him at the rink, he makes a point to come over and say, ‘Hey Mike how are ya doing?’ ”
Hale was asked about when he felt he turned the corner in being a formidable hockey player. He was forthright in his answer and said, “Up until my second year of Squirts, I wasn’t a very skilled player. I just tried to work hard. I had Mike Fidler as a coach and we had a lot of skilled kids on that team so I just worked hard and tried to keep up with them.
“I started getting more skilled at squirts then through PeeWees got better and we kind of formed a good core group of guys. Me and Jabby, Keegan Iverson, Curt (Greenbush), and Noah (Fortmeyer). We combined with St. Louis Park and had a good group of guys and kept working hard,” Hale noted as his Minneapolis mite teams would become the Minneapolis-Park Storm.
It was through those times of development where his bond with Jablonski would form.
Many interviewed for this story point to Zack’s desire to be with his buddies as a key thing in is life and it has been something that he has strived to do. “What I see in Zack is he is loves to be with his buddies. He would rather be with his hockey buddies than anyone else,” Amy said.
“He has always been one of my best friends,” Hale observed of his friend Jack Jablonski. “He is really, my oldest teammate. I have been on his team pretty much every winter since we were like 8 years old and on a line for most of those years. I know him extremely well on and off the ice. He is my oldest and closest hockey friend.”
Jablonski didn’t flinch when pointing to Hale as his closest friend and said, “It was a blast, Zack has always been a tremendous teammate of mine and its been an unbelievable experience all the way up to now. It’s just been weird kind of realizing that it’s almost over. It has been a fun 10 years or so.”
Their personalities interlink as most friendships do. Jablonski is more out-going while Hale is the more laid back of the two. Jablonski concurred with that assessment and said, “I don’t know what it is. I think it is just the personalities. He is a very laid back and I am not as laid back as him but for some reason, it just clicked and ever since then we have just become best friends ever since.”
They continued to play sports whether it be golf, baseball, and hockey together and it led to one of the best Bantam teams in the State their freshman year. A number of kids came from different programs that comprised the Minneapolis-Park Storm that season and the team took the hockey world by surprise finishing fourth in the Minnesota Bantam A State Tournament.
“That bantam year we had a bunch of different kind of guys and it was really cool to get to know all those guys that I never really thought I would,” Hale said. “The team was really unselfish, hard working that really loved the game. We still go out and play pond hockey together it is just pure fun.”
Prior to that season many of the players needed to make their school decisions and the players were already attending St. Louis Park, Minneapolis Schools, and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. It meant tough decisions were being made that included hockey and academics.
“It was like a family and it was really hard when they split up and went to different high school,” said Amy who also served as the team manager through the years. The decision was not easy for the Hale’s and one thing that was key was the desire for Zack to be in an environment to succeed in the classroom and on the ice. Ultimately, being with his friend Jablonski was a key part to the final decision. A transition would be in store for Zack as he went to a school that does have a lot of kids from well-off families to begin his freshman year.
“We were worried about that,” Amy said of the financial differences from attending a public school in Minneapolis versus a highly regarded Catholic school that costs in the five digit range a year to attend. “I am a preschool teacher and his dad is a machinist. Some of the houses I drop him off at, they are so privileged and they don’t even know how privileged they are. Many take trips and have nice cars, and it’s just a different world really, but he fit in just fine. He isn’t flashy and it hasn’t been a problem. He doesn’t ask for a lot and does very well there. Zack is very popular and people just like him. It was a tough decision to choose where to go to high school. The fact he got to stay with Jack at Benilde helped, so at least they were going to be together.”
For Jablonski, saying goodbye to that group of kids, at least as teammates, was difficult and said, “It was hard to let go of that group of people. It was one the years that was meant to be. We all came together and we were all family practically in that year and knowing that six of us were going to go to Benilde we were going to still know each other but not all were going to play hockey moving into the future and half of them were going to St. Louis Park and half of them were going to go wherever, knowing that is what made that year so much more special.”
Life changing events
In late December of 2011, the annual St. Louis Park Holiday Classic was underway and a pair of highly regarded sophomores were skating between the varsity and junior varsity teams as most younger players do. Especially at BSM where the talent is deep and development for players requires finding ice-time for the younger players.
Hale and Jablonski were suited up for the junior varsity team against a deep Wayzata team in the St. Louis Park East rink. The two sophomores were slated to play two junior varsity periods and be available for two varsity periods later that night.
In the blink of an eye, a check on the end wall to Jablonski sent him to the ice and then to the hospital where he would be for months recovering from a serious neck injury that left him paralyzed at the time from the neck down. Hale was on the ice with his line-mate but didn’t see the check.
“We both played JV that tournament. We played two periods of JV and then a couple of periods at varsity. We were playing Wayzata and I was actually on the ice so didn’t see the hit directly but the puck went in the corner and he went in there, he got hit and I kind of turned around and went to go get the puck and I didn’t really know what happened. I just turned around and saw him laying there. I didn’t think much of it at the time but obviously……” as his voice tailed off it spoke volumes.
Uncertainty of Jablonski’s prognosis hovered not only over the Red Knights but the entire hockey world, there was a surreal feeling surrounding not only the Red Knight team but every game that was played. Parents coaches, and fans were sensitive to heavy hits. There was a sense of legitimate fear that permeated the stands from the parents perspective.
In weeks, the Minnesota State High School League led by Craig Perry and Minnesota Coaches Association Executive Director Mike MacMillan stepped forward with a series of rule changes that when implemented calmed the fears of many involved the game. Meanwhile, a worldwide media frenzy followed the Red Knights and Jablonski for the coming months providing plenty of challenges and forcing the team to have to deal with the reality of the situation.
Still, when asked if he ever considered hanging up the blades after the Jablonski’s accident, Hale didn’t hesitate in saying no.
“Not really that much,” Hale responded. “When it happened, it was just kind of shock and then as we kind of settled down more and actually thought about it, it was kind of a realization that hockey was kind of my whole life up to that point and when it gets taken away from your best friend like that you realize it’s not everything. He is going to have to pursue a whole different life. There is a lot of other things than hockey and it’s not the most important thing and I realized it’s not everything.”
Hale was right as there were other things in life other than hockey and another life changing event was occurring at the same time. Just four days after Jablonski was injured, Zack’s mother Amy admitted she needed to seek help for alcoholism and checked herself in for in-patient rehabilitation.
Hale turned to hockey and said, “It made me appreciate being able to come out and play. At that time when it happened, I was kind of a mess because my mom was struggling severely with alcoholism at that point. I was very confused and frustrated that whole winter and wondering when everything was going to come back together and my life was going to get rearranged.”
Zack said the support from BSM school was key to keeping him focused and moving forward. “The support was pretty amazing. I never really told anybody about my mom but school counselors, Mr. J our chaplain, would always talk to us and have meetings with us and just see how we were doing,” he admitted. “My parents, teachers, past coaches all helped a lot.”
He also had another person in his life that would help and it would come from what many would feel is an unlikely source. While in the hospital struggling with the mounting physical and emotional world that was now Jack Jablonski’s, it was Jabby that was there for his friend. They both are keenly aware that those moments when they were alone, helped bond them even closer as they both dealt with the injury and now Zack’s mother’s situation.
“I know that he was going through a tough time when I had my accident and even the situation I was in, I tried to help him out as much as possible,” Jablonski said. “I know whenever I saw him when I was in the hospital it was kind of just at time for both of us to just exhale and kind of go back to just the friends that we were before, just be ourselves and not have to deal with all of the outside drama in either of our lives and I think that is what has helped us become closer as this happened and I think knowing that we both have things in our lives that are going on it helped us become closer.”
Amy was upbeat about where things evolved. As she looked back on the events, and reflected on the positives that came from it.
“Right about the time Jabby got hurt, shortly after that is when I went into rehab. On top of that, not only his friend getting hurt, it was a very difficult year for him,” Amy said. “To not know what’s going on with my mom. Over almost two years later, hopefully it has made us stronger. I hope that I showed him you can come out of a really bad place a better person which is what I really tried to do. I hope that had a positive effect on him. He has learned a lot about that world and alcoholism and what it can do.”
Zack pointed out that his mother has been sober for some time and with a calm demeanor and relief to his voice said, “She’s been sober for over a year now. She’s better now and a lot more calm and I think more wise I guess.”
A true teammate and friend
This story isn’t about numbers, wins, or losses. It is about a young man who puts others before him because it is the right thing to do. Zack Hale is not a self-promotor, and this story came to light from his coach Ken Pauly who told a writer the virtues of Zack Hale.
With hours visited in the hospital and time together hanging out, Hale and Jablonski moved forward in life with a new perspective. The words humble, compassionate, respectful, loyal, and empathetic have all come from the mouths of the eight people that were interviewed for this story. Actions speak louder than words, and Hale’s actions as a person exemplifies the person he is.
Hale immediately felt for what his friend was going through and said, “‘It probably got pretty lonely for him laying in that bed all day. We tried to get out there as much as we could and update him on what’s going on.” He went on to add, “When people would see Jack and tell him how well he was doing and he was progressing real well they only really see the positives only and didn’t really see the struggle and the psychological battle that he constantly went through especially at that time and still goes through.”
When Zack was in second grade, Amy pointed out that he would stay in at lunch and help feed special needs children in his class before he would go out to recess. “In second grade a teacher told me, ‘Zack stays to feed so-and-so during lunch when the kids go out and play for recess,'” Amy said. “He would do that first, and then go out and play.” She beamed with pride only a parent could when that story was shared.
When he was in middle school, a student invited the entire class to a birthday party. Zack and a friend were the only kids from the class that ended up showing up at the party. Todd said as parents they knew that Zack may be out of his element and stopped by to pick him up. He declined the ride and said that he should wait until the food was served as he did not want to be disrespectful to the family.
He would repeat his help with lunch and this time it was with Jablonski after Jack returned to school. Hale helps feed Jablonski every day at BSM and also changes out his personal waste bags. These are steps most don’t see and something Hale does everyday because that is what friends do.
“I feed him, this new semester I am not in his lunch but I have fed him pretty much every day at lunch and change his bathroom tube,” Hale acknowledged. “I feel like I am the friend he is the most comfortable around and figure that is what a good friends do.”
“We will go early a few minutes before lunch goes on and get the food and stuff before everyone comes in and it gets too busy,” Jablonski said. “We just get the food and he will help feed me depending on the type of food or whatever it is, so he is definitely willing to do anything to help me out with the situation.”
Hale has accepted his place on the team and continues to maintain a positive attitude. Former Red Knight legend and Minnesota Gopher Troy Riddle coaches the forwards and had plenty of accolades to shower on his senior forward.
“No matter what, when he comes to the rink he’s a guy that comes with a smile on his face,” Riddle said. “He brings the energy up when he is here. He is one of those guys that tries out there and he leaves the game out there and when the game is done, he leaves it out there. He doesn’t bring it with him wherever he goes. That is tough to do as a person and as a former player I know that is something that is really hard to do and he does that well. When he is done, he leaves it out there.”
Jablonski summed up the character that Hale has as a person and noted that he is liked by all as a caring non-judgmental person who does not thrust himself upon people for attention and said, “He’s shy until you get to know him. A lot of people freshman year kind of thought he was a weird guy because they didn’t know him. Once you get to know him, they really appreciated how nice of a guy he was and what he was willing to do for someone. I don’t know one person that doesn’t like him and I think that says a lot about him. He’s been a great friend to everyone and he is always there to have fun. He is definitely there when you need him to be.”
Hale has seen his ups and downs as a person and player over his four years at BSM. The coaches have stuck with him for the person he is and the amount of skill he possesses. Without question, over the course of his career he would have certainly liked to provide more numbers which are sexier for those that follow the game. That is not Hale’s style. He is a contributor in life and has provided his best for the team and his friends in ways that can’t be measured.
“He could be like any other kid, feeling sorry for himself, pouting, giving up, most kids would have quit and said this isn’t for me,” Riddle said. “With Zack, the biggest battle most people have in life is showing up. He does it with a smile on his face and he still takes care of the team on and off the ice in ways we only wish we can have every year.”
Today, life is winding down for Hale as a high school hockey player. He is in the final weeks of his regular season and preparing for the playoffs. Competing at the next level is something he is certainly interested in and has been in touch with some Division III schools out east.
“I would like to continue playing hockey out east in the NESCAC,” Hale said. “I think D3 would be a good fit for me. I would receive a good education, keep playing hockey and see where it goes.” There was little doubt when Hale was a freshman leading the Bantam A team to the State Tournament that he was a legitimate Division I college hockey prospect.
Todd suggested as much as he we was well aware of where his son was at. “I was assured at the time there was a DI offer somewhere,” Todd said. There were instances where much of what he and Amy worked for went to Zack’s hockey including needing to refinance the home to pay for some hockey bills. “I am not going to lie, some of my motivation was if I made these sacrifices it was going to save itself and pay college tuition or something else down the road.”
As of now, a Division I scholarship does not appear to be in the offing. However, Hale has the potential to do special things on the ice, and there is a great chance he can continue toward that goal.
In regard to Hale’s potential to play at the next level Riddle did not hesitate when addressing the question whether he would take Hale at the next level and said, “Absolutely I would. One it starts with skill and he has that. The stuff he has gone through most men don’t go through or it takes a half a lifetime to go through it and he has already done most of that and as he gets older he is going to be that type of player that no matter what sees life a little differently and comes through on the other side. As a coach and as someone who has seen this, you want guys like that on your team. You don’t always have 17 top high end forwards on your team. You need character guys and you need guys that show up and push those other guys and he definitely would do that.”
More importantly, it is people like Hale who excels as a quality person that allow for the game to have talented coaches such as Riddle giving back to the game.
“He makes me want to keep coaching,” Riddle said. “Guys like that are guys that listen to you and he does what he can, does what he is told and does it with a smile on his face and he comes right back at ya. That’s the reason why we all keep coming back to the rink when you are dealing with those kinds of kids, it’s a no-brainer for me and it’s made my transition from dealing with hockey an easy one when I get to come back and help guys like Zack Hale out.
As for Jablonski, a life in California is something he desires as the cold weather takes a toll on him as keeping warm is always a difficult task. He also acknowledge the proposition of not seeing his friend every day will be a difficult task to deal with.
“I want to make my way down to California in the next few years. It’s a little cold up here for me but it will be tough not seeing him every day,” Jablonski said. He continues to work to make progress dealing with his life situation and has an outstanding perspective on where he is at.
“I am doing well,” Jablonski said. “Obviously, I understand the situation I am in and what to expect in the future. With this team, hockey has kept me busy and satisfied and I am happy to be here more than anything. Progress, right now I am working on getting stronger and keeping myself in shape and just stay strong an healthy in that case. Right now, there is nothing major that I have been able to do lately. In my situation, you work out and work out to stay in shape and then and you just wait for that one day when something big happens. It’s just at the point that your are waiting and you just have to stay positive, understanding what is going on at the time.”
Jablonski would like to pursue a career in broadcasting or hockey as he has already immersed himself in both areas serving as a student assistant coach with the BSM team and also appears every Wednesday night on Sports Radio 105 The Ticket to talk hockey.
Asked about the senior class and all that has surrounded it in the wake of Jablonski’s accident Hale said, “We are pretty together and I can see us carrying on. It is kind of weird it has become a very major part of our grade and it’s changed a lot since sophomore year. I think it will keep changing and adapting with everything and how Jabby is doing. It has changed a lot and I think as he grows, we are going to keep growing.”
Academically, he has held it together being on the honor roll every semester he has been in school at BSM. It has been a roller coaster ride of emotion both on the ice and off for Hale. He has stayed true to himself and is always honest with where things are at. He summed up his life in high school at BSM this way and said, “It’s been pretty sporadic. Lots of ups and downs with a lot of emotion on both sides of the spectrum. Obviously in the sophomore season with the injury and then the (state) championship. It’s been a lot of fun to play with these guys and to experience high school hockey in Minnesota, it’s such a fun team to play with and prestigious school. It’s been pretty exciting and you never really know what you are going to get next.”
The high school experience is about so much more than just a game. Zack Hale embodies a young man who has grown up incredibly fast with dignity, pride, and honor. He is a person who delivers every day for those around him never putting himself first. It is a person like Zack Hale who, regardless of his numbers, is the “True Mr. Hockey.”