A link to hockey’s past

If Minnesota really is the state of hockey — and as a native son of Massachusetts, I’m bound by genetics to insist it’s not, though I know better — then you’ll know the name Jack Falla.

Falla, a former sportswriter for Sports Illustrated, is the guy who caused a tempest back in the ’90s by insisting that the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame belongs anywhere but in Eveleth, Minnesota.

In 1993 the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame was described by its executive director, Ted Brill, as “a place of dignity and honor which all Americans should be able to point to with pride.” Point to? Few Americans even know where the museum is. Perhaps that’s because it’s hidden away in Eveleth, Minn. (pop. 4,064), 200 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. While the area is popular for fishing, hunting, skiing and snowmobiling, the 23-year-old Hall of Fame is not, as Brill concedes, “a tourist destination.”

Nor should it be, given the shabby state it’s in. Last year the Hall drew about 10,000 visitors, most of them during the summer. The museum is located in Eveleth because the people there were the first ones to raise the money to open it, but now, sadly, it is a disappointing collection of broken exhibits, outdated and tarnished plaques, and an inappropriately violent video show.

The guy could write, but more important, the guy knew that what connects hockey to this land isn’t the spiffy indoor ice arenas that have made “softies” of all hockey players in the state who play in them, but it was the backyard rink and the ice on the ponds of Minnesota and elsewhere. It was frostbitten toes and comic books stuffed down into the jeans as shin guards. There was no checking on a lot of backyard rinks because if you did, you really would knock the snot out of the other guy, sometimes with disastrous results.

If you’ve ever tried to build a backyard hockey rink, chances are good, you were instructed by Jack Falla. His own rink, born of years of frustration at trying to build one, became a pretty famous hangout for purists in Natick, Mass. He wrote a book about the emotional connections to backyard rinks (video). You folks reading this blog from outside the land of the frozen pond wouldn’t understand.

He was one of the stars, sort of, of the documentary film, Pond Hockey, which was produced by a couple of folks with Minnesota connections who were, as Euan Kerr of MPR described earlier this year, worried that the roots of hockey were being lost.

Fallin died on Sunday after suffering a heart attack in Maine. One of his former students — he also taught public relations and journalism at Boston University — penned a nice tribute to him today on the Boston Globe’s Bruins blog.

Two years ago, several days after Hana was born, she got one of her first birthday presents. My friend Jack Falla had mailed the stick, on which he inscribed, in his unique and horrendous handwriting, the following message: “Retaliate first. H. Shinzawa #1.”

It belongs to Hana, but it means so much more to her father.

The stick captures everything about the man. His passion for hockey. His affinity for goaltending. His admiration for Montreal, the city more so than its hockey franchise, and his exploration of French-Canadian culture. His mastery of language. Most of all, his love for children and friends and connecting in a human way in which he had no equal.

Don’t tell that to the folks in Eveleth.

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