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Goodbye to greatness

Posted by Fluto Shinzawa, Globe Staff  September 15, 2008 11:21 AM

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Together, Barbara and Jack Falla kept watch over the Bacon Street Omni, their backyard rink. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)

One of my daughter's treasures is a toy Montreal Canadiens goalie stick.

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.

Jack had a heart attack and died early Sunday morning. He was in Maine with his wife Barbara, daughter Tracey, son-in-law Maurice, and grandchildren Ella and Demetre.

People might know him best as a supremely talented writer of hockey and life (although he admitted he was a bleeder over the keyboard). He covered the NHL for Sports Illustrated. Several years ago, he scored a game-winner with Home Ice, which centered around the Bacon Street Omni, his backyard rink behind his Natick home. Saved, his hockey novel, came out earlier this year. Open Ice, his latest collection of essays and companion book to Home Ice, was recently released. For those privileged to correspond with him via e-mail (he despised the phone), his messages were Jack at his best. Kind, witty, and funny as you-know-what.

Others might remember Jack as a teacher. He taught sports journalism and public relations at Boston University, then helped his former students land jobs after school. To that last point, this writer is no exception.

But Jack's life revolved around his family. He was married to his dear wife Barb -- his devotion to her poured out in his words, both spoken and written -- for over 40 years. He was so proud of Tracey and son Brian. As Grampa Jack (he sometimes referred to himself in e-mails as Grampstah Jack, gangsta version), he helped shape the early years for Ella and Demetre.

In the 1980s, when Jack was at SI, he chronicled the greatness of Wayne Gretzky during his Edmonton years. Jack connected with father Walter, also an owner of a backyard rink. He skated alongside Gretzky and Mark Messier and wrote about his experience.

Jack never said it, but one of his reasons for leaving SI and its required at-the-drop-of-a-puck travel around North America was because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Really.

I was lucky to have Jack as a professor at BU. Best college professor I ever had. No contest. I still regret oversleeping for one class, rushing to make it for the end, and having Jack shake his head in disappointment. I spoke to his class in May. He was still busting on me for missing that one class. It was 12 years ago.

Jack influenced so many parts of my life. We shared interests in hockey, writing, cars, steering clear of marital high elbows (I just ripped off one of Jack's best lines), and cooking. I've never eaten better crab cakes than his. Jack joked that when Barb, a meat-and-potato diner, went to Maine to visit the grandkids for the weekend, he could really cut loose in the kitchen/porch, otherwise known as the Slapshot Grille & Lounge.

"So badly did I screw up Monday dinner (ribs -- inedible, don't even want to talk about it) that I did crab-stuffed baked lobster as the makeup call last night," Jack wrote last month. "Didn't want the Slapshot to lose its one-half Michelin star."

Jack's wake is on Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Doherty's Funeral Home in Wellesley. Puck drops, as Jack's brother Patrick put it, on his funeral at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick's in Natick. There will be hundreds of heartbroken people there. It's ironic. Jack hated crowds. Wouldn't have gone near the place.

Jack had a storybook marriage. He reached the peak of his profession. He helped nurture his grandchildren, taking them to donut shops and pushing them around his backyard rink. He helped thousands of his students. He touched even more of his readers.

Jack had a gigantic life. What's so crushing is that he had so much more to give.

UPDATE: BU's College of Communication has established a fund in Jack's name, with details to be determined. Donations can be sent to:

Jack Falla Fund
College of Communication
Boston University
640 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215

tags Jack Falla
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