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Backyard rink has special meaning for Falla family

Tuesday, 12.30.2008 / 10:02 AM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Brian Falla - Special to NHL.com

The late Jack Falla wrote "Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds," widely considered the bible for home rink enthusiasts. In it, he explained life and family through anecdotes that took place at his family's rink. Falla, a journalism professor at Boston University who covered the NHL for Sports Illustrated during the 1980s, passed away this past September at age 64. Today, his son, Brian, talks about the magic his father brought to his family's backyard and how that magic is the core essence of professional hockey's own backyard game: the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009.

My father's voice sang out from the telephone receiver, which was strange given his aversion to phones.

We often joked that my father would probably reach for the garden hose before the phone if the house were ever to catch fire.

But this day was different and I was expecting the call.

"Are you watching this?" he asked.

It was New Year's Day and the NHL Winter Classic 2008 was unfolding on TV, the Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Buffalo Sabres in snow-kissed Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Sidney Crosby was attempting to scoop the puck off the snow-covered ice and cradle it lacrosse-style between two defenders. That little bit of tom-foolery is what prompted my father to pick up the phone.

Having a skating rink in our backyard in Natick, Mass., for the past 25 years, we already knew all the tricks to playing in snow.

Immediately, we were talking hockey -- specifically, outdoor hockey -- and wondering aloud whether the pros would resort to the same tricks we often used in our outdoor rink: Pulling a guy's stocking cap over his eyes in front of the net, or screening the goalie by shooting a pile of snow. We also wondered whether rink rules applied, meaning the losing team was going to be forced to shovel the ice at the end of the game.

The conversation lasted more than 30 minutes, which may have been a new family record. But, in a way, it wasn't really shocking.

Hockey always has tethered our family. The game represented a conversational safe harbor for us. It was always easier to talk about the condition of the rink or cold high-pressure systems coming in from Ontario than it was about algebra.

I imagine it is the same in a lot of hockey families.

Let’s face it -- a certain bond is formed when hockey parents willingly and continually shed warm gloves in freezing weather to tie their kid's skates at the local pond. That bond is only strengthened later in life when parents have to leave the warmth of their beds to drive kids to 5 a.m. practices and sit in freezing rinks, inhaling Zamboni fumes and drinking the primordial ooze that counts for hockey-rink hot chocolate or coffee.

Yet playing outdoors represents something special.

Games of shinny, or pick-up hockey, are the common heritage shared by all hockey players. It was how my father had grown up learning to play the game on a pond in Winchester, Mass. Thanks to the "Bacon Street Omni" -- the affectionate name of our backyard rink -- it was how my sister, Tracey, and I learned the game, too.

Because of our rink, we explored the game on our own terms, with only our lack of talent and imagination to dissuade us. Often, we'd lace up the skates in the morning and not take them off until after sundown.

Along the way, our kitchen was transformed into a locker room, complete with throw rugs and mats so people could get to the important places -- the refrigerator, stereo system and bathroom -- without taking off their skates.

"It connects me to the people I love."
-- Jack Falla

I always found it ironic that I could go through an hour-long hockey practice at the local indoor rink and come off the ice winded and exhausted, but would routinely skate six and eight hours straight on the Omni. It was only when I was older that I decided the fatigue from playing indoors was mental.

Only outdoors, on the game's natural stage, can tired muscles and numb feet be prodded onward by the sheer joy and excitement that cannot be replicated indoors.

When asked why he decided to build a skating rink in our backyard, my father often would wax poetic about how it represented "tapping into the soul of the sport he loved." He would talk about how skating on a pond, or a backyard rink, "descended the ladder of sports evolution."

The rink allowed us, as my father said, to play the game in its natural habitat, unimpeded by rules, refs and coaches.

At the time, my sister and I had no idea what he was talking about, or which ladder he supposedly was descending. All we knew was the backyard rink was a lot of fun.

Now, 26 years later, we have an entirely different view of the backyard rink -- and its place in our hearts. And we agree wholeheartedly with my father when he often said the best thing about the rink is, "It connects me to the people I love."

 
In our neighborhood, the rink was the social magnet, and many friendships -- and sometimes more -- were formed on its surface.

My father's labor of love provided a chance to skate and play with friends, parents and neighbors, and magically, it wove its way into the heart of everybody who twirled around its glazed surface.

Prior to the rink, my parents had their friends, I had my own, and my sister had hers. During the years of skating, playing pickup hockey and shoveling, all those people became a single entity. They became -- and remain -- our friends.

In our experience, friends that dig in the corners together -- and then shovel those same corners -- stay together. Through the years, I've often been asked the difference between having a pool and a skating rink, and I typically brushed it off with a wisecrack about pool people not wanting to go into the corners.

My dad, though, was always ready with more philosophical answers. To him, the rink had a deeper meaning, one that took him back to his childhood and connected the generational gap.

There's no rule that says a family that skates together, shovels together and checks each other into eight-foot-high snow piles that often corral outdoor rinks is any better off than those families that just go to the movies, but looking back now -- after my father has passed away -- I wouldn't trade those backyard-rink moments for anything.

It took me many years to realize the rink’s true significance and the tangible bond it provided my family.

Growing up, it always amused me that my dad would put so much time and effort into constructing and maintaining the rink. Yet, I can't recall him ever leading the family in ice time. Such a scenario seemed counter-intuitive to my adolescent brain.

It only was later that I finally understood. To me, the rink was about skating. For him, the rink was about family and friends. The skating was a bonus.

After my father's death in September, a lot of people asked me what I would miss the most. Many innocently assumed it would be skating with him at the Omni. Not true. The memories I most cherish include digging the support holes for the rink's boards on cool, crisp autumn days or shoveling out from snowstorms -- while trading a snowball or two -- to make the ice ready for another session.

No matter the chore, the exertion always was tempered by hockey discussions, the soundtrack shared by father and son.

Yeah, I'll miss skating, too, but more so I'll miss the sum of the parts that made skating possible.

And this year, when the Hawks and Wings take the ice at Wrigley Field for the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1, I'll miss not hearing that phone ring, with my father on the other end, and being able to relive our own winter classics.

Boston University has set up the Jack Falla Memorial Fund, a fund established immediately after Jack’s passing, to help future sports communicators and sports journalists at the College of Communication reach their goals. To make a contribution, go to https://www.bu.edu/alumni/com/giving/give/index.shtml or send a check made payable to Boston University. Please write Jack Falla Fund on the memo line. Checks may be mailed to Micha Sabovik. College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA, 02215.