Stephen Yurichuk, known to his friends and colleagues as Yuro, is one of the best youth development coaches in the game. He's also Cade's coach on the summer AAA Reebok Nationals team. Yuro is a Canadian hockey lifer. He participated in his first line brawl at the age of 11, and he speaks nostalgically about the good old fighting days. But he also believes those days belong in the past. As the head coach at the Northern Educate Hockey Academy, a private school near Minneapolis where students get 480 hours on the ice a year, he does not tolerate back talk, chirping or cheap play. "It's all about respect," he says. "My philosophy is to play tough and eliminate the man from the puck, with skill. I want to win—the right way."
Like all good coaches, Yuro's influence over his players is immense. Donavan Meyer is one of his kids, a ninth-grader at the Academy who also plays on the Nationals team. His family lives in Dallas, and until this year his mom spent the last two summers driving 20 hours straight most Thursdays to get him to Nationals practices, then 20 hours back home on Mondays. In August, his grandparents rented a home near Minneapolis so Donavan, 14, can attend the academy full time. "It's stressful. I miss my parents," he says. "But hockey is my life." At 5'9" and 180 pounds, he is a physical player who spends his share of time in the box. "I never intend to hurt anyone," he says. And he knows Yuro would bench him for a malicious hit. Still, he envisions an NHL future with contact. "When you're out there, it's like war," he says. "If someone hits my goalie, or one of my players, it sets me off." He has enforcer potential, and he knows it: "If my coach says that's your job for the team, I'd do it."
"Even if it means you end up broken?" I ask.
Donavan is a friend of Cade's. Off the ice, he is quiet and introspective, with a passion for history and the manners to clear his own plates. He pauses for a long time when I ask this question. "If that's what my coach wanted me to do," he says, "I'd do it."
For me, there is nothing to do but hope. I hope that the adults in charge of the game can alter the force field. After the recent changes, referees call the games tighter, coaches argue less, parents yell less, and the players hit less by the boards. But this is hockey. Jack's buddy Keegan is also a physical player. Traumatized by Jack's injury, he vows to hold himself to a higher standard. But in a Breck varsity game against Moorhead on Jan. 14, in a scrum in front of the net, he hits a kid after the whistle blows and is ejected. "He was really upset," says his mom, Amy. "He felt like he let Jack down." Sue Olin, whose son Conor Andrle is a Breck captain, says the boys were impressed by Keegan's reaction. "He was yelling loudly as he was ejected," she says. "But he was not yelling at the refs. He was yelling at himself. A psychological shift is under way."
After a week and a half at HCMC, nurses are able to sit Jack up at 90 degrees, pushing him past pain and nausea, in the beginning for five minutes, then 10, finally an hour. The first time he is wheeled out of his room and feels comfortable sitting up, he asks to stop at a window. "I never knew how interesting it could be to watch cars go by," he says.
Leslie isn't there. As a mother, she has witnessed so many firsts in the life of her son: first word, first step, first goal. She wishes she had seen this first, but there will be others. Jack wants to get back to Benilde. He wants to go to dances. He wants to go to college. He wants to work in the hockey industry in some capacity. But first he will have to learn to maneuver a contraption with his upper arm to brush his teeth. "The hardest part has been realizing that I've got to start from scratch," he says.
On Jan. 23, Jack is transferred across town to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. He spends grueling days working to reclaim his life. He will be there until at least April. Leslie says the family is "elated" with Jack's progress and that he has "some sensation in his hands." His ultimate goal, he tells me: "I want to skate again." He is not fooling himself. "He knows what he's facing," says Blatherwick, "but he holds out hope that something could change."
It is a only matter of time before it finally does. While neuroscientists around the world work on brain radios, exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by human thought, life goes on, for Jack and for all our boys. They have dreams. Some will come true. Others will not. We can only guide them. "Kids get so passionate about sports," Blatherwick says. "We think it's trivial in the long run. But kids don't.... They think it's superimportant. If they want to succeed, they have to work at it. So for Jack, that's the most important skill he has learned as an athlete—to know that any success he's going to have, any happiness, he's going to have to overcome hard times and work on it really hard."
Jack agrees. "You don't know what you have until you lose it," he says. "But it's still life."