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Monday, Oct. 22, 2018
Venturing, through the years, with the Voima Athletic Club
by Randy Pascal

The history of the Sudbury region has been deeply touched by the influx of European immigrants, throughout much of the twentieth century. Small wonder then that the sporting history of the area should mirror that very phenomenom.

Finnish born athletes rose to prominence in the Nickel City, showing the way on the ice, at ski circuits, in gymnasiums and at track and field venues, both locally and internationally.

And while the individual names are many, collectively, few could match the impact of the Voima Athletic Club. “Voima was an athletic club, but we were also involved in folk dancing and all kinds of activities – theatre, choir, dances,” noted long-time volunteer Esko Punkkinen.

Although the traditional gathering hall, located near the shores of Long Lake on Sunnyside Road, has now been sold, many in the area can easily recall the days when feats of athletic excellence were common place at the south end facility, which featured a track located in the field behind the hall.

First established in 1940, the Voima Athletic Club reached new heights through the 1950s and 1960s as waves of newcomers from across the Atlantic arrived in Canada.

“1953 was the year in which the largest number of Finnish immigrants came to Canada, mostly young me,” explained Voima historian Taisto Eilomaa. “They came for work – lumbering, mining and farming,” added Harold Huhtanen.

“Finland had just gotten their independence (1917), paid their war debts, but there was a golden opportunity to come to either Canada, Australia or the United States,” Huhtanen said.

With many of the new arrivals still unable to speak English, nationality-based community halls would spring up across North America. At one time, there were as many as five distinct Finnish social groups in this area alone, most notably Voima and the Sampo crew.

The new clubs offered not only a cultural outlet for the Finns, but also the chance to maintain their involvement in sports they loved. “I used to do javelin and play baseball in the old days – and I also skied as well,” Punkkinen said.

And while the Scandanavian countries, in general, might be much more well-known for their dominance of specific winter sports, it was actually a variation of America’s game that Punkkinen recalls most fondly.

“In Finland, “pesapallo” (baseball) was really strong, but it’s a different type of baseball than what we have here,” he said. “It’s the same amount of players, same number of innings, but the hitter stands near a round plate on one side, the pitcher stands on the other side and pitches the ball straight up, as high as he wants, but it has to land on the plate.”

“We would play against Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie and Toronto,” said Punkkinen. “We had a really good time.”

For others, the memories date back to the loppets, the nordic ski races through which names like Antero Rauhanen, Matti Maki and Perry Sakki became known across the country.

On five different occasions (1954, 1956, 1967, 1976 and 1979), the Voima Athletic Club played host to either the Canadian Junior or Senior Cross Country Ski Championships. Eilomaa and Huhtanen share stories of serving as “watchers”, on the hill, on race day, subjected to coffee refills that contained more than just the usual kick of caffeine.

By the 1980s, membership was beginning to decline, specifically in athletics as local schools became the training grounds for sports like track and field and gymnastics. Even the multi-ethnicity of Voima could not fight the change in the landscape of local sports.

The club had always prided itself on welcoming one and all, with Italians, Ukranians, French and English athletes all part of the rich fabric of competition that was the Voima Athletic Club in its heyday.

While the Club still exists, utilizing the Finnish Retirement Home off Second Avenue as a central meeting place, the programs are more limited. To this day, the group still provides nordic ski assistance with their jack rabbit cross country ski program, numbering just under one hundred strong.

Folk dancing and theatre activities remain an option for second and third generation Finlanders, looking to build a stronger bond with their past. And Voima continues to provide financial assistance to the likes of Becky Laakso (nordic ski) and figure skating great Meagan Duhamel, whose grandparents attended many of the Voima dances.

“There were no telephones, there were no televisions, the culture was very important to them,” Huhtanen said. A very different era indeed.

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