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Sports Ex-NHLer Falloon leaves Manitoba farm for run at the Allan Cup

In the autumn, the old feeling comes on again, the instinct to start afresh, to recommit, to get moving, to return to a familiar routine in a new season. "But then again," Pat Falloon says, "it's good to be home for the harvest, too."

He is back on the farm now, a place that, figuratively, never entered into his professional hockey career. Falloon spent not a moment in the minors after being drafted second overall in 1991, right behind Eric Lindros, four spots ahead of a Swedish kid called Peter Forsberg.

The ensuing journey took him to San Jose, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Edmonton, Pittsburgh and Davos, Switzerland, before landing him back in tiny Foxwarren, Man., and for a few days, here.

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Here, this week, is lovely Dundas, where Falloon is playing with Manitoba's Ile des Chenes North Stars, one of four teams competing for the Allan Cup, emblematic of senior hockey supremacy in the Dominion of Canada, as it has been since 1908.

That tier of the sport has faced more than its share of challenges, hurt by the changing face of the game, the changing face of small-town life, and the growth of minor-league professional hockey in the United States.

Still, though, there is something familiar and traditional in the mix of talent found on the rosters of the North Stars, the Stony Plain Eagles from Alberta, New Brunswick's Lancaster Aquarius ThunderCats and the hometown Real McCoys: a combination of local heroes, good juniors who weren't quite good enough to take the next step, and a few who had a taste (or more) of The Show, here for fun, for a lark, to make a few bucks and to win a historic championship. (Rick Vaive, for instance, will be suiting up for the Real McCoys).

There is also the odd "whatever happened to?" story, such as Ile des Chenes' Lindsay Vallis, who was drafted 13th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1989, and wound up playing in precisely one National Hockey League game.

Falloon, though, is a tale unto himself. He was a bonafide star in junior hockey with the Spokane Chiefs, where he excelled on a line with Ray Whitney, and was chosen the most valuable player of the tournament while winning the Memorial Cup in 1991. That was the year of the first Lindros soap opera -- Would the Nordiques pick him? Would he report? -- leaving Falloon to be drafted next with relatively little fanfare by the expansion San Jose Sharks.

There, playing on the first line of a lousy NHL team, he recorded a very respectable 25 goals and 59 points in his rookie season.

It was certainly hard to imagine then, looking at the 19-year-old Falloon, that it would turn out to be the best year he'd ever have.

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"There were certainly some ups and downs in my career," he says. "I would have liked to have won a Stanley Cup. The closest I got was when we got to the finals in Philadelphia. Other than that it was great times. I enjoyed every minute of playing in the NHL. I feel lucky to have played that many years and that many games in the best league in the world."

The half-empty side of that equation he chooses not to mention: that a whole lot of very smart hockey people figured he'd last longer, that he'd play far more than 578 NHL games, and that he'd be at least a consistent scorer. That belief got him chance after chance. When he soured on the Sharks and they soured on him, he was traded to the Flyers, where a renaissance briefly seemed at hand. Philadelphia eventually shipped him to the Senators, in the deal that sent Alexandre Daigle (now there's symmetry) out of town.

From Ottawa on to Edmonton, where Falloon had one very decent season, including an effective playoff, and seemed to understand that he would have to adapt his game and approach to a third-line role. Finally, on to Pittsburgh, and out.

The knock on him, always, was that he carried too much weight, that he lacked the necessary work ethic and a willingness to sacrifice. His old linemate, Whitney, who was regarded as a marginal NHL prospect, has built a nice little career out of skill and hustle, most recently with Columbus. But Falloon, having exhausted all of the optimism around him, is back working with his father on the land. Along with two other players from the Foxwarren team, he was picked up by the North Stars for what they hope is a run to the Allan Cup.

"Sometimes I do [miss professional hockey]" Falloon acknowledges. "But I'm enjoying what I'm doing. After playing all those years as a pro, it certainly takes a toll on the body. It's certainly a little different now. But I enjoy being on the farm."

Falloon pauses a moment when asked what he'd do if someone offered him one last shot, if (like Daigle) he'd be willing to try working his way back to the NHL. The thought isn't so far-fetched, given that Falloon is still only 30, given his talents and how talent-poor the league has become, given that there's always a coach or general manager somewhere who thinks they can succeed where others failed.

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"I don't know," he says. "I'd have to get in shape first. I might . . . I don't know."

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