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Toledo, Ohio, is no Toronto when it comes to hockey, but in the late 1960s it was a town growing a hockey family. Greg Jablonski was a star with the International Hockey League’s Toledo Hornets, with 361 goals in 915 games. His wife Monica was a professional ice skater teaching kids how to power skate. So with a league-leading scorer and power skater at the top of the branch of the family tree, how did Pat Jablonski end up being a goaltender? “I was the youngest of four boys, so they made me play goal. I had no choice! I was drafted, I had no choice, they threw me in there and I don’t know for whatever crazy reason I must’ve liked it enough stay.”
Even though Pat was the youngest, he wasn’t merely a punching bag for his older brothers when they played hockey in flooded backyards or nearby Lake Erie. Twin brother Jeff, and older brothers Dean and Robert helped Pat develop his game as a youngster, with Robert even coaching him until his tragic death from cancer in 1973. When the NHL made a brief stop in Cleveland from 1976-78, Pat witnessed his first NHL action in-person when the Cleveland Barons hosted the New York Islanders, and he left the Richfield Coliseum with a mentor in mind. “I remember, I was pretty young, but my favorite goalie coming out of that game was Glenn ‘Chico’ Resch. So I really started following Glenn Resch.” With a strong pedigree of hockey in the family, and just enough NHL action to watch, the first of many series of amazingly-timed events would play out in Jablonski’s life.
Just days after his 18th birthday, Pat was drafted in the 7th round of the NHL entry draft by the St. Louis Blues, something you can safely say came out of left field. “I was actually playing baseball, and I came home from baseball and my mom said, ‘Hey somebody from St. Louis called. I think you were drafted but I’m really not sure what they wanted’. That’s how I found out I got drafted. I wasn’t sitting there waiting, I didn’t have any idea that I was going to get drafted, I just got drafted. So that’s really how this whole journey started.” After three seasons in Windsor, he went in to a pretty stacked goaltender pipeline for the Blues organization, but after getting significant playing time in Peoria with their IHL affiliate, fate shined down on Jablonski again. “Vincent Riendeau got hurt, Curtis Joseph was backing up, so they called me [up from the minors]. So I go up and we’re playing the Chicago Blackhawks. First five minutes of the game, Curtis Joseph blows his knee out. So then I get my chance, we ended up winning the game 2-1, and I think I played 7 or 8 games in a row and played really well.”
The injuries to Riendeau and Joseph opened up just enough of an opportunity for Jablonski, who appeared in 22 games over three seasons with St. Louis. It also gave the Blues the opportunity to loosen up the logjam in net, as they traded Jablonski and three other players to Tampa Bay the day after the 1992 expansion draft. Even though Wendell Young was the starter in the Lightning’s first game on October 7, 1992, Jablonski ended up playing the most games that season, including a few notable milestones along the way.
He was the goalkeeper of record when the Lightning earned its first road point with a 4-4 tie in Chicago in their third game of the season. Just two nights later he made 35 saves on 36 shots against the powerhouse Blues team that traded him just four months before, helping the Lightning earn its first road win. “St. Louis Stadium was packed, and to see myself in another jersey and to see myself playing against that [St. Louis] jersey in St. Louis was really kind of a weird feeling. But it was fun and we won the game and I played a decent game and it was a good memory.” And even though Jablonski (and notably general manager Phil Esposito) was miffed that he lost the shutout in the final minute of that game, just one month later he would get the first shutout in franchise history with a 38-save performance against the Ottawa Senators at Expo Hall. It was the only shutout for the Lightning that season.
Jablonski’s role dramatically changed the following season with the acquisition of Darren Puppa in June 1993. Puppa was a bonafide number-one goalie, and with Young and prospect J.C. Bergeron fighting for ice time, Jablonski was traded to Toronto in March 1994 after appearing in only nine games. His career continued for seven more years in various locales and leagues, but you can’t say he didn’t have any dull moments along the way.
On December 2, 1995, Jablonski was the goalie at the end of the Canadiens bench at the Montreal Forum when Patrick Roy was hung out to dry by head coach Mario Tremblay in an embarrassing 12-1 shellacking by the Detroit Red Wings. With the score 9-1 in the 2nd, Jablonski skated out to retrieve Roy, and Roy went out of his way to inform Canadiens team president Ronald Corey he had played his last game for the Habs. “We didn’t play another game for four days. Every day, I have 30 reporters around me. I didn’t even want to get off the ice after practice! And talk about being nervous before the [next] game, I mean they just got rid of arguably the best goalie ever to play and here I am taking over. It was a WILD week.”
During the 1997-98 season, Jablonski played 34 games for the IHL’s Cleveland Lumberjacks, alongside a youngster named Martin St. Louis. The following season he once again teamed up with Wendell Young to help the IHL’s Chicago Wolves advance to the Turner Cup Finals. After two years in Switzerland, his hockey career wound down and he got in to business while also getting married and starting a family. From there you could put a nice neat bow on his story and call it a good one, but life had another strange twist of fate—and another unique set of circumstances in store.
In September 2008, the Jablonski family went to Anna Maria Island for a weekend vacation with friends they met through their young daughters. The surf was higher than usual due to a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and Pat decided to ride the waves on a boogie board. On one high crest, one which he estimates to be about eight feet high, Jablonski fell off his board and face-planted in the water. He was face down in the rough water, and couldn’t feel his arms or legs. Fortunately the family friend, a New Jersey police officer named Alejandro Martin, was nearby and realized the distress. Martin gingerly brought Jablonski ashore where an anonymous nurse and lifeguard helped stabilize him. Jablonski thought it was just a stinger, and it would go away soon. In reality he had fractured two vertebrae, and a bulging disc bruised his spine. Today he realizes he was just inches, maybe even centimeters, away from being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. “I could hear the doctors in the background talking, and I can just hear them saying, ‘This is the luckiest guy we’ve seen in a long time. This is unbelievable.’ And they were just talking like “this guy is so lucky’ and I’m like, ‘Are they talking about me?’. And ironically enough the guy that ran the emergency room there played hockey, he was a goalie. He came racing in and he came to see me right away, and when he saw it he said he almost threw up when he saw the CT scan because he didn’t know if I was okay or not.”
The amazing set of circumstances that helped Jablonski learn hockey as a child, reoccurred to help him make it to the NHL, and now another set saved his life. He’s walking, talking, working, and raising his daughters (now age 10 and 7) along with his wife Melany. “I don’t know what reason I’m around for, and maybe it’s just my two daughters and doing the right thing with them, but I’m very fortunate to be around today and try to make the best out of every day.” And as the Lightning organization celebrates 20 years of hockey, Jablonski has had his heart and mind reopened to his entire playing and life’s experiences. “I still have great memories… and just to see where this organization has gone to and where it started, it’s been a fantastic ride for not only Tampa but the fans here.
Jablonski will always be known as an original member of the team, a record holder with the first shutout, and now as in then always in the right place at the right time. You could say it was all somehow meant to be.