‘By his own admission, Bernie Fransen was not a great athlete. But like so many who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in Sudbury, sport was an integral part of his youth, giving way to countless memories of a time that was so much different than today.
“When I was growing up, athletics were put on the backburner as far as my parents were concerned,” Fransen said. “But ... I can’t remember a time when we weren’t involved with some sort of sport.”
The eldest son of a Swedish father and Finnish mother, Fransen and family grew up in the Lockerby area.
“We were very lucky, growing up in Lockerby, and being associated with Finnish people in the area,” he said. “The Finns would put together track meets and festivals, camps for youths, that gave the young person a chance to find out where they were in sports.”
It also provided the breeding grounds for many high profile athletes from the area, including track and field Olympians Roy Pella and Leo Roininen.
Back then, most of the individuals did it on their own.
While Fransen was among the youngsters who made the trek over to Alerts Field – considered one of the finest track and field venues in Ontario at the time — he recognized early on that international glory was not to be. But that didn’t stop him from trying.
“I would walk from our home on Nepahwin Avenue. I would crawl upstairs, because I knew that there were two shot puts up there and would throw the shot put until my arm was almost falling off,” he said, with a laugh.
Attending Walford Public School at the elementary level, Fransen continued his love of sport, and athletics in particular, while attending Sudbury Mining and Technical School.There, he continued to show some promise. “I held the junior boys’ discus record for a period of one year.”
While the track throwing events ranked top among his sporting interests, Fransen enjoyed a variety of sporting pursuits.
The quarterback of the high school football team, he was also fortunate to hook up with a talented group of hockey players in Gatchell, comprising a midget team that fell just short of playing at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Backstopped by NHL goaltender Eddie Giacomin, the local lads, facing Rouyn-Noranda, had a chance to advance to play the Toronto Marlies. The Gatchell Midgets were tied at a game apiece when their opponent’s top player joined his teammates for game three. “In the last game, they bring out this guy who gets the puck and we couldn’t get it from him,” Fransen said.
“I remember playing defense — he was in front of me, then he was behind me, and then the puck was in the net. It turned out to be Dave Keon.”
Starting in 1960, Keon played 15 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and won four Stanley Cups.
With academic pursuits always the number one priority in the Fransen household, Bernie headed south in the mid-1950s, attending the University of Waterloo and obtaining his degree in engineering. There he suited up with the university hockey team, and added a stint with the football crew, too.
With a pair of grandsons in the AAA minor hockey scene, Fransen was able to provide a contrast in times, comparing the current landscape in which young athletes develop to the one he experienced some six decades ago.
“Back then, most of the individuals did it on their own,” Fransen said. “You didn’t have the help they might get today, certainly you didn’t have the coaching that they have now. There were people who really gave of themselves, but it wasn’t as structured.”
Through it all, he pursued his love of sport. “What a great thrill it was just to make the team,” he said. “I can tell you, I didn’t make every team I tried out for, but I would rather make the team than not make the team.”