Jack Falla, the BU journalism lecturer widely considered one of the best hockey writers in the business, died of heart failure on Sunday, September 14. Falla had worked as a writer for Sports Illustrated and taught sports journalism at the College of Communication for many years. He was 64.
Falla (COM’67,’90) was the author of Saved, a novel about a Boston Bruins goalie, as well as Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds, and the forthcoming Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer.
“Jack stopped into my office last Thursday and left for me a copy of his newest book, Open Ice,” says Tom Fiedler (COM’71), the dean of the College of Communication. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to chat with him, and the book sat on my desk unopened. When I came in this morning, already saddened by the tragic news of his death, I noticed it immediately and opened it to find this inscription: ‘Tom, Anyone who thinks hockey is a tough game never tried running a college.’ I can only say that however tough it may be to run a college, it will be much tougher without Jack on the faculty. He was a great teacher, a great journalist, and a great alumnus of COM. He will be terribly missed.”
“Jack was a passionate teacher who brought his enthusiasm and knowledge of sports into the classroom,” adds Lou Ureneck, a COM professor and chair of the journalism department. “He also was a positive and upbeat presence in the college. I remember speaking to him just last Thursday as he bounded up the stairs on the way to class.”
A wake will be held on Wednesday, September 17, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the George F. Dohertyand Sons Funeral Home, 477 Washington St., Wellesley. A funeral mass will be held on Thursday, September 18, at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Church 44 E. Central St., Natick.
Below is Falla’s meditation on life, loss, and hockey, excerpted from Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds. The piece was previously published in Bostonia magazine.
The Home Ice Advantage
By Jack Falla
Author’s Preface: My backyard skating rink is important because it connects me with people I love. Since I first built it seventeen winters ago, the rink has been a bridge to family and friends, a road back to the frozen ponds of my New England childhood, a lens through which I’ve watched my children and their friends grow up, and an arena wherein I’ve battled the encroachments of middle age. Middle age is winning.
“Shots in the Dark” is the second of the seventeen essays that make up the book Home Ice. I wrote “Shots” because I’d wondered why I often shoot pucks in my driveway the way other — should I say more normal — people go to their driveways to shoot basketballs or to their gyms to work out. The answer for me has more to do with getting through life than with staying in shape. — JF
I understand it better now, but on the February morning when I was ten I remember thinking it was odd, probably irreverent — maybe even sinful — to be shooting a puck against a wall a few hours after my mother had died.
My mother lost what journalists tend to call “a long battle with cancer.” I thought of it more as a street fight — no rounds, no rules, no draws, and nobody to break it up. I thought she may have had the better of the kicking and scratching when she came home for Christmas and stayed with us until mid-January before going back to the hospital. But then came the phone call at about four in the morning and the visit from my aunt — my mother’s sister — to my room.
I was saddened by my loss, angry about my mother losing. As the rest of the morning disintegrated into a chaos of doorbells and phone calls, I escaped to the backyard.
It was bitterly cold and I noticed a small frozen puddle a few feet in front of the garage wall. Water had collected in a depression my friends and I had made by wearing away the turf in our touch football games. My parents didn’t mind some of my friends wearing cleats in the yard. I remember a friend’s mother asking my mother rather archly, as I would later learn some well-off suburban women like to talk, “You let these kids tear up your yard like that?”
“That’s what we bought it for,” my mother said.
I wandered into the garage and found my hockey stick — its straight blade held together by layers of black friction tape — and a puck encrusted with the calcified dirt of some now-forgotten driveway hockey game. I dropped the puck on the frozen puddle and started taking shots at the garage wall, toward an imaginary goal in front of which crouched an imaginary goalie. I didn’t have much of a shot. Still don’t. But I found intrinsic satisfaction and vague comfort in the act of shooting, of sweeping the puck forward and sending it where I wanted it to go. Whether I hit or missed, I controlled the stick, the puck, and all the variables. If I did everything right, I could control the outcome of the act in a way I could never control real life.
I don’t know how many shots I took that morning. Probably not many before cold, obligation, and guilt drove me back to the house. In the forty-plus years since, I’ve often gone outdoors to shoot pucks the way other people might go out to shoot basketballs. I do it for recreation and sometimes for escape.
Of course not all of my pucks have been pucks and not all of my goals have been goals. I’ve shot tennis balls, rolled-up socks, a wooden ball from a toy bowling game, rolls of tape, cans of tuna fish, Whiffle balls, chunks of ice, and pieces of wood. I’ve shot them at walls, closets, garage doors, beach chairs, bookcases, and — my all-time favorite — a fireplace screen. Even today I cannot see a fireplace screen in even the most elegantly appointed living room without thinking — “top corner.”
These days I have my own rink in my backyard and, on it, a regulation-size, steel-frame hockey goal. I shoot at it a lot in winter but, when the ice melts, I put the goal in the driveway for the kids. I rarely shoot at it there.
That goal sat on my driveway one August morning a few years ago when I was hit by what the late E. B. White of The New Yorker called “that end-of-summer-sadness our language has no word for.” It was a sadness made worse by loneliness. My wife, Barbara, was visiting friends in New Orleans, our son, Brian, was at work, earning money for his first year at boarding school, and our daughter, Tracey, was in Maine at a field hockey camp.
Shots at an Empty Net
I ate breakfast alone, then went out to cut the grass. But, when I got to the garage, I impulsively grabbed a hockey stick instead of the lawn mower. I took five pucks from a plastic milk case filled with pucks, dropped them on the driveway about twenty-five feet in front of the goal, and began wristing them into the net. I remember two shots: one that clanked into the goal off of the crossbar. I automatically celebrated that one with an upraised stick. And one that deflected off of the right goalpost and put a dent in my grille cover. You can’t always make things happen the way you want them to.
What I remember best is that the act of shooting felt familiar. Comfortable. Steadying. But I’d taken only twenty shots or so when I started feeling self-conscious. What would our neighbors or a passerby think of seeing a grown man, alone, shooting hockey pucks at an empty net in what was shaping up as one of the hottest days of the summer?
I put my stick away and started the lawn mower. Neighbors understand lawn mowing. But, after more than forty years, I’ve come to understand something about shooting pucks. It is a good and blameless thing to do when the world fills with confusion and good-bye.
While I tried to keep the tone of Home Ice as upbeat and joyous as one of our backyard skating parties, there are two places in the book where the mood darkens briefly, and I write not of connection but of the ultimate disconnection; the essay you just read is one of those places and the following, entitled “Last Skate,” is the other. It is the book’s final chapter.
I hadn’t seen the pond in more than forty years and saw it this time only because I had to drive past it on my way to visit an aunt in the hospital. I remembered it as such a tiny, shallow pond that I didn’t even know it still existed, much less had a name. But there it was, just a few yards into the woods on the west side of South Border Road in Medford, Massachusetts. “Bellevue Pond” read the sign in front of a small paved parking lot — a place where old men sat in cars and read newspapers — behind which sat the pond itself, as small as I’d remembered it. You could hit a pitching wedge across it. It was the first place I skated.
It was school vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s and my mother and aunt — my mother’s older sister — had taken my younger sister, Elizabeth, and me to the pond to try out the skates we’d received from a Santa Claus we still wanted to — but didn’t — believe in.
My skates were cheap ones without much padding in the tongue and with a boot that offered a chafing stiffness but little support or comfort. I forget what off-brand they were but it’s safe to say they weren’t Tacks, which in those days were known by their full name, Tackaberrys. Of course I didn’t know then that my skates weren’t good ones and neither did my parents and, even if they did, I doubt they could have afforded Tacks.
My mother helped me into the skates — to this day I have not figured out a comfortable way to put on my skates while kneeling on a frozen pond — and I went tottering ahead gingerly and with much waving of my arms. The only clear memory I have of those first few strides is of the contrast between the blackness of the ice and the stark white of the cuts made by the blades of other skaters. Natural ice did not look like the ice I’d seen in Currier and Ives lithographs. The feeling I had was one of vulnerability, as other, older, and better skaters whizzed around me.
My mother must have sensed my insecurity because when she came out onto the ice wearing an old pair of figure skates, the once-white boots of which looked like they’d been dyed in tea, she stood a few feet away, held out her arms, and encouraged me to skate toward her. It was the same strategy she used in teaching me to swim: stay close, present a reachable goal, make no reference to anyone or anything else, and reward the achievement with a few kind words. It’s a strategy I use today when I teach a college writing class.
I remember stumbling toward her and half crashing, half throwing myself into her outstretched arms, then pressing and being pressed into the warmth and softness of her fake fur coat. I did that a few times before I developed the ability and willingness to go shuffling around on my own. I don’t remember how long we skated but it must have been until deep into the afternoon because the light had changed and the pond that was in sunlight when we arrived was in the long shadows of bare trees when we left. I hadn’t known it was so late.
That was the first and only time my sister and I skated with my mother. It was also the last time my mother skated. A few months later and pregnant, she was diagnosed with cancer. And several months after that she and the son to whom she had prematurely given birth, Stephen Charles, were dead.
Driving past that pond and recalling that day I skated with my mother, I thought how good it is that we cannot see beyond the present. I also thought how skating and hockey helped me through the dark decade after my mother’s death. That what she had set in motion that day on the pond would remain in motion until today, when I have a wife, children, grandchild, home, and a small homemade skating pond of my own.
Last Visit to the Oval Office
As January pushes into February and the sun, daily rising toward the vernal equinox, hits the ice at ever-higher angles, I can’t help wondering which skating session will be my last for that season. Even on the coldest late February days the midday sun reflecting off the south-facing boards will soften and often melt the ice at that end of the rink. I think it was this curiosity about what would be the final skating day of the season that led Barbara and me to start recording the season’s final skate in our rink’s guest book. . . . We had to do so days after the fact because with natural ice you never truly know what skate will be the final one. But in late February and early March I often get a feeling similar to the one I get when Barbara and I walk off the beach on Cape Cod on the last weekend in August. I just know in my bones that we won’t be back again that year. I cover it up with a lot of talk about how September is the best month on New England’s beaches and about how we live so close to the Cape we can zip down to the beach any time we want to. But summer’s over and I know it. It’s just too sad to say out loud.
Because of space requirements, we here eliminated a brief digression in which I explain the rituals surrounding our rink’s guest book and quote a few guests, one of whom noted that she enjoyed skating notwithstanding that she was seven months pregnant.
As I look in our guest book I see that I have taken the final skate in three of the six seasons we’ve been keeping that record. Twice by myself. Once with Barbara. And all three times I knew intuitively that it would be the final skate. And, even when I wasn’t the last skater off the ice in a given season, I still knew when I was taking my own last skate, and on those days I stayed out longer and skated harder. Of course I didn’t skate any better, I just did what I’ve tried to do ever since I took those first shuffling strides with my mother — skate as well as I can. Because life is different from a skating season, and in life you never know which skate will be your last. Only that one of them will be.
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