Our good buddy Alex Stitch reviews Home Ice by Jack Falla, a guy who, in the past, was kind enough to chat with us here on Pensburgh about life as a hockey writer, novelist and teacher in the Boston area. Unfortunately Jack passed away last summer but there's no denying the impact of his work, as you'll see in Stitch's review.
Take the jump.
I recently finished reading Jack Falla’s Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds. For those of you unfamiliar with Jack Falla, he was a sports writer for Sports Illustrated and other hockey publications, as well as a professor of sports journalism at Boston University.
The first time I heard of Jack Falla was in the documentary Pond Hockey, which I’m sure a lot of you know I will praise highly as well. Both the film and Falla’s collection of essays and stories know how to reach deep down and speak to the fun loving children in all of us. But most importantly, it touches on how hockey is supposed to be played: outdoors, and just for the fun of it.
It is the memory and appreciation that you come across from reading his book in particular, the idea or memory of being able to go outside either on a local frozen pond, or a home made rink in our back yard and be able to play hockey for hours at a time, until you can no longer feel your digits and face, or until it gets too dark to see the puck. Can you imagine being able to go outside any time you want to shoot a couple hundred shots at a net, or skate a few drills, for no better reason except to have fun and because you want to?
It’s that concept coupled with Falla’s respect, traditionalism, and love of the game that made me fall even more in love with this game called hockey, and solidify my personal statement that one of my biggest regrets is not falling in love with this game earlier and learning how to play it when I was younger. The elements of winter fall upon us and create that wonderland where you can move on ice freely, what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about skates as "fetters on land but wings on ice." And just like those natural elements, Falla explains how he learned and saw the elements of life unfold before him on his backyard rink or local pond, from first loves and growing comfortable around someone, to realizing your children are growing up and in some cases, skating past you to make their own future.
I started playing hockey just a few months ago, starting out with a basic skills and conditioning class for adults and going to pick up games Friday nights. I had never played ice hockey before, just street hockey when I was younger with childhood friends. I’m not the best, but I know I am not the worst out there either. One thing that Falla said in Pond Hockey was something that I immediately identified with. "I’ve never been unhappy on the rink." I have never had so much fun as I do when I know I get to go play some puck. And Falla’s words make me wonder what I missed out on not playing hockey, opting instead for basketball, baseball, and embarrassing attempts at football. I like to think that I have enough athletic ability, and have been told so in the past, that I could have attempted playing some serious hockey.
What I can say after reading Home Ice is that hockey is at least a sport that provides you with the enjoyment and thrill of still thinking you can make it big time, just as long as you are having the time of your life.
One thing that I try to remember when watching sports is that in the end, it is just a game. I think hockey is a concrete example of this, because our heroes never forget it. Whereas compared to other sports you get the feeling that players are out there to either just get paid or to set themselves and their own achievements on a pedestal. You can hear examples of players being the last to leave the court or field, but it always has a different ring to it when you hear a hockey player staying longer on the ice, usually because he is just shooting or skating for the hell of it, and most likely because it is the most fun they have and ever will have.
Falla gives an example of this from one of the many times he interviewed the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. But on this particular assignment he was actually able to skate with Wayne during practice. After a drill they ran together, Falla was able to get a glimpse of Wayne that he could not see in any other player.
"But instead of merely gathering in the puck and lining up for the next drill, Gretzky, to the left of the goal and with his body already beyond the goal line, hits the brakes, whirls, reaches back over the goal line with the puck and clanks a backhander off of the far post and into the goal. Gretzky yells, raises his stick, and deliberately spins and crashes into the glass behind the cage. Coming around the net I get a good look at his face. He is smiling, truly beaming. [Andy] Warhol was right. There is joy and there is energy. The look on Gretzky’s face is the same look I’ve seen on the faces of children on the backyard rinks."
It is an emotional escape and release, which is why I think some people, myself included, take it so personally when their team doesn’t win. For sanity’s sake, and as Falla’s father once told him, after Jack had asked him why he doesn’t get rid of his season tickets, "Because it’s cheaper than psychiatry." It’s good to be able to have something you can turn to, something that is supposed to be all for shits and giggles, never to be taken seriously unless it involves a high stick or holding. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The worst and silliest of all wastes and sacrifices is the sacrifice of the power of enjoyment." That is exactly what one should get out of reading this particular piece of work by Falla; the never- ending capability to be able to have as much fun as you can while loving a game for as long as you can.
Falla quotes former Canadian National Hockey Team head coach Dave King who said, "You can’t love the game unless you’ve shoveled the ice," referring to the work it takes before skating on a backyard rink or frozen pond. I promise you, if you pick up this book, which is a very quick and worthy read by the way, it will make you want to go out and shovel the ice for hours in your underwear, if only in hopes you get a thirty minute skate session out of it.