October 12, 2008

Interview With The Author: The Late Jack Falla of Open Ice and Home Ice

I have to admit this is a tough one.

Back in September I reviewed Jack Falla's excellent new book titled Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer. The next day, he contacted me to offer me his thanks.

I must admit to being ecstatic. One of the greatest hockey writers ever not only read my review, but he liked it and enough to go out of his way to tell me so.

Then I got courageous and asked him if I could interview him about the book. I fully expected him to brush me off at least at that moment. After all, he's an incredibly busy guy and he could be conducting interviews with so many more beneficial sources than my little little website.

Without hesitation Falla enthusiastically accepted the offer to be interviewed by me. I would contact him a day later with my questions, and he would clear time from his schedule to make sure the interview had center stage.

I'm not sure if I was more incredulous of what just happened or down right nervous about what was going to happen. After all, here I am, a complete amateur, interviewing a writing legend, veteran journalist and a 20 year University professor of journalism. I definitely was out of my league.

Jack Falla not only obliged me but made me feel like a million bucks in doing so. He gave me the rare feeling that maybe, just maybe, my hockey writing was going to get me somewhere yet. He was truly an amazing and humble man.

Three days later Jack Falla died of heart failure. I could not believe it.

It has been about a month now, and I'm hoping I'm airing this interview in good taste. The interview was intended to promote his new book, but as far as I'm concerned this interview is now my way of saying thank you to him.

I recently had the unreal experience of interviewing Jack Falla about his new book Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer.

Falla is hockey writing and reporting legend, and a professor of journalism at Boston University. Talk about intimidating. I'm a complete amateur interviewing the master. I was actually afraid to ask Falla if he would allow me to interview him, for fear of disturbing him from his busy schedule.

But Falla was more than happy to oblige me in my request. What follows is the interview about his new book, Open Ice, available in bookstores everywhere.

HBR - In 2001 you wrote the critically acclaimed Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds. Your new book, Open Ice, follows in the same manor, only you call it a companion book rather than sequel, which is apt. Did you have any concerns about trying to follow up the great success of Home Ice?

Jack Falla - Yes. I was concerned -- rightly, I think -- that I'd said almost all of what I had to say about my backyard rink and the way it connects me to the people I love. I thought I had more to say but that I had to get off of my rink and onto the road to say it. Once I started writing OPEN ICE I stopped thinking off HOME ICE as a kind of competitor. They're different books and yet each is about using the game as a lens through which to examine other facets of life.

HBR - In compiling the collection of essays for Open Ice, you brilliantly weave the book together through the recurring theme of dealing with getting older. Was this by design or something you discovered as you went along?

Jack Falla - It wasn't by design. Indeed, I didn't even know it was happening -- or the degree to which it happened -- until I was reading the page proofs. Sometimes we go to the writing desk and are surprised by what happens there. OPEN ICE was one of those times. It was also on the page proofs that I realized how much of the book is about my wife Barbara.

HBR - The book opens with you paying your respects to the great Rocket Richard. He transcended the game in Canada and especially in Quebec. How important was he to the game down in the United States?

Jack Falla - I'm afraid the Rocket didn't enjoy a high or well known niche in the mid-20th Century pantheon of US sports heroes. People outside of NHL cities knew the name but that was about all. It was Bobby Orr who took the game coast to coast in the USA and Wayne Gretzky who took it global -- or at least hemispherical. I hope my essay on Richard helps to acquaint today's hockey fans with the Rocket's iconic importance.

HBR - In another chapter you reminisce about the day back in the mid-60s where you got up the nerve to ask Alex Delvecchio if you could put on the goalie pads and practice for the Detroit Red Wings. What did you learn that day and how important was that day in your life?

Jack Falla - I learned I could push through the wall of fear, something I still have to do four times a week at Boston University where I teach two classes. I suffer from stage fright or some sort of social anxiety. But the fear is OK as long as you can harness it. Fear feeds performance -- Most players, every goalie, and some writers know that.

HBR - You devote a chapter to great old arenas of the Original Six days. What was your favorite old barn, and why?

Jack Falla - I'm one of the diminishing number of people who saw all six buildings. Now, sadly, no one else can ever see them because so many are gone. I'm a Bruins fan so the Boston Garden will always be special to me.

HBR - You devote entire chapters the long ago lost lives of Georges Vezina and Hobey Baker. What drew you to these two great hockey personalities?

Jack Falla - A chance connection with a young man in Chicoutimi (Vezina's hometown) who tended Vezina's grave and had such reverence for Georges' memory drew me to the grave site and, from there, to the Hall of Fame archives to learn what I could about one of the least known members of the Hall of Fame Similarly, a friend offered to get me into the archives of St. Paul's School, Concord, NH. - where Hobey Baker went to school and learned to play hockey. I couldn't pass up the offer. And yet Hobey was hard to capture in words. Even now he seems to dangle tauntingly out of reach.

HBR - Is the modern game as good as the days of the Original Six? Or as good as Wayne Gretzky's 1980s when you covered hockey for Sports Illustrated?

Jack Falla - The modern players and teams are better coached, conditioned and trained. Players today are bigger, stronger, faster, better equipped, better protected and just plain superior to the players of the 50s and 60s when I first started watching the NHL.

But there was a romance to old game that I don't think exists today. There were only six teams, players were recognizable, some rivalries were fierce. I PREFER the game of my youth. But I'm the first to say today's game is better.

HBR - You openly admit that while in Italy you were more preoccupied with your hockey pool than with the Sistine Chapel. Is the Sistine Chapel that bad, or is hockey just that good?

Jack Falla - That's why I gave up fantasy hockey. One shouldn't be sitting in the Sistine Chapel and thinking only about trading the then slumping Alexander Frolov's ex-Commie butt. A brief fling with fantasy hockey distracted me from the art of the game just as it had distracted me from the priceless art in the Sistine.

HBR - Open Ice concludes with a chapter about your back yard rink, which is also the entire topic of Home Ice. Are you still planning on putting the backyard rink in this winter?

Jack Falla - No. Twenty five years is enough. That said, I should point out that the Grandchildren's Lobby -- an unscrupulous and well funded political action group -- is putting on tremendous pressure as summer turns to fall. Grandpa Jack is holding firm -- but not as firm as I was two months ago. Grandchildren are hard to resist.

HBR - Name your favorite hockey book(s) not written by Jack Falla.

Jack Falla - Ken Dryden's The Game makes all else a fight for 2nd place... I enjoyed Eric Duhatschek's King of Russia, Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater...Brian Kennedy's Growing Up Hockey...David Bidini's Tropic of Hockey and almost anything by Roy MacGregor.

HBR - You teach sports journalism at Boston University. Do you have any famous graduates?

Jack Falla - Fluto Shinzawa is the Boston Globe's Bruins beat writer. Lisa Altobelli's work appears occasionally in Sports Illustrated...A. K. Clemons' work can be found in ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com...New York Daily News Yankees beat writer Mark Fiensand is a friend and former student.

HBR - How are your Boston Bruins going to do this season?

Jack Falla - The only honest answer is -- it's unknowable. But I think they may take one small step back before they surge forward. Much depends on Patrice Bergeron's return from a season-ending concussion.

HBR - Are you working on a new hockey book?

Jack Falla - Yes, I'm working on another novel, this one dealing with an NHL team owner, the rise of a Euro Super League, and various sub-themes most of which have to do with love, money and hockey

Jack Falla's new book Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer is now available on book store shelves everywhere. Also check out my complete book review of Open Ice.


Unknown December 4, 2009 at 8:39 AM  

Great interview! I read three of Jack Falla's books about a year or so ago. I could not get enough. I was researching Jack Falla on the internet when I realized that he had passed away. Your interview gave me one more chance to enjoy him.
Thank You
Hockey Fred

Dave December 4, 2009 at 11:54 PM  

Hi Joe, just wanted to say that I really like both your blog in general and the Falla interview.

I have a blog that I do a lot of reviews of all different types of books and magazine articles and as as someone who grew up with hockey... had a chance to read Falla and do a few different reviews of his stuff (most recent below):


Anyhoo... just wanted to say I like your stuff a lot and look forward to reading it more.

Darrell Gibson,  April 11, 2012 at 9:59 PM  

I have just finished reading two of Mr. Falla's books and loved them. I was in the process of looking up a website where I could send him a note to tell him so and was stunned to read that he had passed in 2008. My best wishes and condolences to his family.

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