December 24, 2009

Lowell's Falite shows true colors

by Andrew Merritt

Kory Falite (photo: Ken Babbitt)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

In the waning days of winter in Lowell, Mass., in 2007, rumors, speculation and fear swirled through the bitterly cold March air, making it hard to believe spring and summer could possibly be on the horizon.

The word was that the UMass-Lowell hockey program, caught in the crossfire of a battle between a school and a city, might be pulled from the ranks of Hockey East and from Division 1 … and perhaps even from existence altogether.

Players, coaches and fans were all put in the unenviable position of trying to imagine life without hockey, at least as they knew it. That was perhaps truest for Kory Falite, who had just finished a freshman season that saw him put up 10 goals and eight assists playing for what quite definitively was his home team.

Falite grew up in Billerica, just a 10-minute shot down Route 3 from Lowell, and as the program enjoyed some national success in the mid-1990s, a pint-sized, pre-teen Kory went to “every game” at the Tully Forum, the River Hawks’ cozy home until Tsongas Arena opened in January 1998.

The youngest child of Frank and Maureen Falite, Kory was a hockey kid who played for the Boston Junior Bruins under coach Peter Masters – his brother-in-law – putting up 79 goals and 91 assists in his three seasons, and leading the team in scoring in his final year.

He got offers from New Hampshire, Maine, Quinnipiac and Merrimack. But there was one team that made the most sense, the one school that truly felt like home.

“It was nice to stay local,” he said toward the end of November, before the River Hawks prepared for practice at the sparkling Tsongas Arena, another big part of his decision to come to UML. “This was the best fit for me, for the development of my game, and being right in the area.”

Things have changed a lot since then for the River Hawks, whose 7-2-1 start had them up to No. 4 in the polls in late November. Falite was averaging a point a game (5 goals, 5 assists) early on.

As Falite’s freshman year came to a close, the University of Massachusetts administration considered dropping the UML hockey program from Division 1 play. At the center of the issue was the arena, which was owned by the city and rented by the university. After a rental agreement fell apart following the 2006-07 season, there were weeks of uncertainty during which the River Hawk players had to confront the possibility that their team might disappear.

It was a dark time for the team, and perhaps darkest for Falite, who had just finished a good debut season with the team he grew up watching, and now had to consider uprooting himself and transferring to a school whose hockey program was still intact.

“There was a lot going through my mind,” he said. “It was, ‘Well, is the program going to be around anymore?’ Then it’s, ‘Well, where am I going to go play?’ As individuals and as a team we were all up in the air, because it was our future, too.”

Falite grew up with UMass-Lowell hockey as one of his favorite pastimes, and came to school with no shortage of connections. UML coach Blaise MacDonald, a Billerica native himself, was a student at Locke Middle School when Frank Falite was a gym teacher there, and Frank coached MacDonald’s brother.

“Frank’s sister used to cut my mother’s hair,” MacDonald said. “So it was an interesting web that was woven. … We had meetings here (while recruiting Falite), and when you’ve been doing recruiting, your intuition tells you where you’re at. My sense was Kory wanted to come here and we wanted Kory, so it was a pretty succinct recruiting process.”

College hockey players are engulfed with pride. They’ve moved beyond the developmental universe of junior or prep hockey, and they’ve not yet discovered the glory of the almighty professional dollar. They fight for the name or logo on the front of the jersey, and if there’s any doubt, ask a freshman at Boston University how he feels about the Beanpot even before he’s played for one.

But Falite has an extra reason to be proud, an extra element that makes the red, white and blue “UMass Lowell” crest on his sweater worth fighting for.

“You can definitely tell,” said goalie Nevin Hamilton (Ashland, Mass.), Falite’s housemate and one of his best friends. “Every game he’s giving you 110 percent, and he’s changing the game. I think he takes pride that his family’s up in the stands every night, coming from just down the street. So he really takes that to heart, I think, and I’m really proud of him to be playing here for us.”

That’s why it might have meant just a little bit more to Falite when, thanks in large part to the passionate work of new UMass-Lowell chancellor Martin Meehan, the school reached an agreement with the city in 2007 that kept the hockey team intact and in Hockey East. That agreement evolved into November’s announcement that the school would take ownership of Tsongas Arena entirely, making it the River Hawks’ home, once and for all.

These days, pint-sized, pre-teen kids come to Tsongas Arena to see Falite and the River Hawks. For little puckheads from Billerica, Lowell, Chelmsford and other Merrimack Valley towns, UMass-Lowell is the home team, and Kory Falite is very much their hometown guy.

“He wanted to see this team through to the end, and I think he would have been the most upset if we couldn’t come back for our sophomore year and he had to go somewhere else,” Hamilton said. “He’s a true River Hawk, for sure.”

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.