There are many feel-good moments within the sport of hockey, and it seems as though all of them are packed into this book.
Open Ice: Confessions and Reflections of a Hockey Lifer is a collection of essays by sports writer Jack Falla, who covered the NHL for Sports Illustrated during the 1980s.
In these essays, Falla talks about some of the history of the NHL and of its famous figures, among them Jean Beliveau and Maurice Richard — two players he admired despite his history as a Boston Bruins fan — and his experiences watching and meeting them. He also writes about the stories behind the Original Six arenas, not as we know them now, but as they were way back before expansions and corporate venues. Lastly, he touches upon the concept of the “rink rat,” the young hockey player hustling to get as much ice time as possible, and the backyard rink he vacillated about rebuilding each year.
Among my favorite pieces is “Passing the Torch,” in which Falla recounts his experience of taking his grandson to his first Bruins game. Falla switches back and forth from narrative of the “present day,” when he’s watching the game with grandson Demetre, to a sort of flashback in which he reflects on his first Bruins game with his father. It’s funny and heartwarming, and reminded me of the first game I’d ever gone to (I was 19, but I responded with much of the same wide-eyed surprise as Demetre). There’s also “Requiem for the Cucumber,” a biography and voyage to the resting place of Georges Vezina, for whom the best-NHL-goaltender trophy is named.
Every essay ties back to Falla’s personal stories as a “hockey lifer”, which makes it introspective but not overly self-indulgent. You can tell that he both knew and truly loved the sport of hockey, both as a youngster and as a man in the “autumn of [his] life,” as he so eloquently puts it in the text. (Sadly, Falla passed away in 2008 at age 64, shortly before Open Ice was released.)
The New York Times called this book “literary hot chocolate that will warm your heart,” and that’s not such a bad metaphor for it. It’s well-written, funny, poignant and informative, and as I read it I felt like I was being taken back in time to a more romantic era in the sport. That’s not easy for me, a post-2004 lockout baby who has only ever really seen the game through the lenses of instant replay, fantasy and arenas named after not-quite-familiar banks.
In short, I definitely recommend every hockey fan read this book, especially if you’ve been disillusioned by the ridiculous posturing between players and owners during the current work stoppage. It might just remind you of why you fell in love with hockey in the first place.