For the last three months a member of the Navy hockey team has hung a blue Midshipmen No. 7 jersey behind their bench before games. There, as the Mids take the ice, the jersey rests comfortably. Just like the man who used to wear it rests now.
“He was a great example for all of us in terms of how selfless he was,” says Navy forward Jack O’Hear.
“He never let the people around him have a bad day,” said Navy forward Matthew Harrigan.
Jason Jablonski represented all that the Naval Academy and its hockey team stands for on and off the ice.
“Just an absolute warrior,” said Harrigan.
“For a smaller guy he would throw his body against the biggest guy,” said Navy head coach Michael Fox. “He may bounce off and land back down but that guy wasn't going to get very far after that.”
The young man nicknamed "Jabs" was as tough and as fierce as they come. But late last year there was one opponent he just couldn't beat. Jason was diagnosed with Leukemia in August.
“That was very tough,” added O’Hear as he became emotional. “I had never really seen anything like that before in person. I'm sure a lot of the other guys haven't either. To be such a close friend, so young too. But, it's an inspiration too. For him to fight like that all the way to the end, it was a sight to see.”
Midshipman first class Jason Jablonski died on November 27, 2016. He was only 21 years old.
“Random times throughout the days you see pictures of him online, you go through your phone, you see pictures of him, text messages you had with him. You get those random memories of things that you did with him. But, I like to turn it and think about all the positives and how nice it was to be able to know him. And to have those experiences, I'm very fortunate along with everyone else on the team,” said O’Hear.
“Some days are tougher than others,” said Harrigan. “Just little things, memories you think of in the middle of the day that makes you feel something in your throat.”
Since Jason's passing, along with his jersey that travels with them, the Mids have worn his initials on their helmets. They've made patches in his memory and wristbands inscribed with a special saying.”
"Win every battle,” reads coach Fox as he looks down at his wrist. “That's how he lived his life. Everybody on that team watched him battle this with all he could.”
“We were a tight-knit team before but this has only helped us. We've been fortunate enough to be able to lean on each other. To get through it together as a team,” said Harrigan
This weekend Navy plays its final games of the season, the Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association playoff tournament. What this final road trip represents isn't lost on the Midshipmen and what it would have meant for their fallen brother.
“This would have been his senior year, his senior year playoffs and we want to make Jason proud,” said O’Hear. “So this is obviously a big weekend for us because we know how big it would have been for him. We definitely want to win it all for him. That's definitely what our goal is and hopefully we can do that.”
“If nothing else, we got to be able to give him this tournament,” said coach Fox. “It's not going to be easy, but we got to do it.”
Jason Jablonski grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He was an economics major and was selected to attend flight school to become a pilot.
He passed away at Walter Reed National Military Medical center in Bethesda and is buried on the Naval Academy grounds.
This weekend’s ECHA Tournament takes place in Aston, Pa.
Navy plays its first-round game on Friday against Temple at 4 p.m.