By Sara Romano
Two months removed from surgery and recently out of a body cast, then-4-year-old Jack still walked with a noticeable limp, but was thrilled just to be sitting on the Chicago Wolves’ bench watching warm-ups one year ago.
Born with hip dysplasia, a congenital misalignment of the hip joint, the curly-haired, blue-eyed boy dreamed of one day playing hockey for the Wolves.
In February 2014, Jack Kabela took part in the Wolves Wish program, which was established to provide special experiences for families facing adversity. Jack’s “wish day” involved joining the team for warm-ups, tossing t-shirts into the crowd with the mascot Skates and hanging out with the players for a private autograph session after the game.
Shortly after the big day, doctors cleared him to begin taking skating lessons. Later that spring, Jack put on skates for the first time.
On Feb. 28, almost one year to the day after his Wolves Wish, Jack reached an important milestone when he participated in the post-game skating session following the Wolves game.
“I want to be a goalie,” Jack said between shooting Batman missiles, tinkering with Legos and showing off his Wolves memorabilia.
As he tentatively stepped out onto the ice at the Allstate Arena for his first solo go-around, his mother Gwen Nelson watched nervously.
“To go from being a little boy who couldn’t even jump because he didn’t have the muscular strength to lift his body up to being out on the ice, it’s huge,” Nelson said, reflecting on how far her son has come.
The most memorable aspect of the festivities? Learning how to “spit like a hockey player,” she said.
“For months afterwards…thank goodness it was warm outside,” Nelson said with a laugh, “because he was practicing spitting like a hockey player outside.”
Facing a third surgery this summer in which his pelvis will be broken and repositioned, Jack still has a long way to go in his slow and methodical journey toward his dream of playing hockey. But the Wolves Wish experience marked a turning point for both mother and son.
Jack’s obstacles began even before his birth. He was born at just 27 weeks alongside his twin brother, who lived only 23 days.
“He’s our guardian angel,” Jack said without hesitating. “We are very lucky.”
Nelson echoed her son’s statement.
“Almost six years…he’s been through a lot,” she said. “He’s done spectacular from where he could be. We’ll take the hip issue and work with it and fix it.”
As a toddler, Jack used to cry watching the peewee teams play between periods at the Wolves games because he wanted to be out on the ice so badly, Nelson recalled.
Shortly before his second surgery in November 2013, she came across the Wolves Wish program and nominated her son as a recipient. A response came almost immediately.
“His experience was a little unique,” said Courtney Mahoney, the Wolves’ senior vice president of operations. “Not a lot of people get to [go out on the ice.] But that was something that Gwen had mentioned when she first did the request, so we were happy to do whatever we could for them.
“He’s such a charmer, so kind of whatever Jack wanted, Jack got.”
Established several years ago by Mahoney, the Wolves Wish program grants approximately 10 wishes per season to families in need.
“The goal is that if they are going through a hard time, to take three hours and make it special so they feel lucky and they aren’t thinking about their trials and tribulations,” she said. “And if we can do that, it’s really a huge victory.”
There is little doubt that Jack’s wish day was memorable. Wolves’ goalie Matt Climie, one of Jack’s favorite players, gave him a signed, game-used stick that hangs in a place of honor in their home.
“[Jack] is a special kid,” Climie said. “He dealt with a lot of adversity and to bring so much happiness to a kid’s face, that just shows you, something as small as [the stick] has such a big impact on a kid. If we can bring that little bit of joy and little bit of fun to his life, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Like many professional sports teams, the Wolves maintain a significant community presence through various charitable initiatives and events. Throughout the organization, there is a sense of responsibility to give back to the community that has supported the team for more than two decades.
“That’s the beauty of minor-league sports,” Climie said. “If I have a bad game or things don’t go the way I want, you kind of reflect and look at the bigger picture. For these kids and families that are going through tough times, it just shows you there is more to life and to make the most of [hockey].”
Although Jack had a personal post-game autograph session with the Wolves as part of his wish day, he was most excited to brag about his relationship with another important member of the Wolves team—Skates.
“We are like this,” Jack said, crossing his fingers to indicate the tightness of his friendship with the mascot.
Mahoney said the Wolves’ staff members have a soft spot for Jack as well.
“He is such a wonderful, really inspiring little guy,” Mahoney said. “We kind of call him a little mascot. He just charmed everybody. He comes up and gives you a hug and no matter what your day has been like, it kind of puts it in perspective.”