Farewell to a First-Class Hockey Father

February 25, 2011

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Whenever I talk to a high school coach who quit, they always say the kids were great, but the parents drove them crazy. Doesn’t matter what sport.  

But when I coached the Ann Arbor Huron high school hockey team, I was lucky. Yes, getting to know the players was the best part, and now, seven years after I stepped down, I’m going to their weddings. What I didn’t expect, though, was becoming lifelong friends with their parents, too.  

The team we took over hadn’t won many games, but after we had a decent first season, three hot shots showed up at our door. They had all been coached by Fred Fragner, who once played for the Junior Red Wings.  

Whenever these boys blew a great scoring chance, or received a bad call or got whacked with a stick, Fred always told them, with a grin, “Three words: Be a man.”  By the time they came to Huron, all three were just that.   

Fred’s son, Chris, had more talent than I could have hoped for. Even better, no one worked harder, which solves a lot of problems if you’re the coach.  He got that from his father. The only real differences between them were matters of style, not substance.  Fred’s character, was Chris’s character.  

Another problem we didn’t have was Fred Fragner butting his nose into our business. He was a much better player than I ever was, and he did a great job coaching our fall conditioning team, but he left us alone each winter, which is a great gift for any coach.  He never had a bad word for anyone – with the possible exception of a few referees, who, I must say, richly deserved it.  Fred Fragner knew a rotten ref when he saw one.  

Chris had become so good his senior year, only one guy could keep him from being named the state’s top player – me. Other coaches would have played Chris in big blow-outs to pad his stats, but I never did – and Chris never complained.  Neither did his parents. Those of you who’ve coached kids sports can appreciate what a gift that is, too.  

It was only after I stepped down that a friend of mine pointed out what great families we had on our team.  I hadn’t considered that as a separate factor before, but I soon realized that was the foundation of everything we had accomplished – and Fred Fragner was smack-dab in the middle of it all.     

After Chris graduated, he became the first player from our high school to make Michigan’s team in two decades.  He didn’t play much, but he never complained.  Now he’s using his business degree to pursue a career in finance, and playing with washed-up skaters like me on Tuesday nights.  

Along the way, I’d become close friends with all the Fragners, and especially Fred, who always flashed his big rack of white teeth whenever he let loose his booming laugh. I saw that rack of white teeth and heard that laugh for the last time on Monday.  After a year-long battle with an aggressive form of cancer, Fred Fragner took his last breath that night.  

He was a great husband to Patty, his wife of 37 years, a great father to his daughter Jessi and to Chris, and a great friend to many more, including me.

The year had been filled with physical pain and heartbreaking setbacks, but I never heard Fred complain. He savored everything he could – including the weddings of his two children last year. Faced with a diagnosis he knew was bad news, he followed the advice he had so often given to his son.  “Three words: Be a man.”

Fred Fragner was a man – one of the best I have ever known. 

Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio

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  • 2/25/2011 10:48 AM jim decker wrote:
    As always John, just great commentary. Thanks
    Reply to this
  • 2/25/2011 10:51 AM David Ellies wrote:
    What a great eulogy. I didn't have the privilege of knowing Mr. Fragner, but wish I had. Thank you John!
    Reply to this
  • 2/25/2011 11:23 AM Andrea B. Kornblue wrote:
    What a beautiful tribute to the Fragner family. You are a good friend.
    Andrea B. Kornblue
    Reply to this
  • 2/25/2011 11:43 AM Stan Bidlack wrote:

    Another one of your excellent tributes to a fine person. Made me tear up. Well done!

    (I don't know how you managed to read it on the air without a crack in your voice. But I'll bet there was a tear in your eye.)

    ~~ Stan
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  • 2/25/2011 2:10 PM Jim Hirsch -Bris dad wrote:
    Fine words for us all!
    Saw Bri last night and she told me that she and her boss are addressing the Hinsdale Little League next week about sports injuries. It all started in your class. Be well!
    Reply to this
  • 2/25/2011 3:43 PM Mike Smock wrote:
    Great tribute John. I never new the man or his family but growing up in A2 and having been coached by men like Andy Anderson, Pete Palmer, Eldon Rouse and Bob Ufer your words resonated deeply with me. These are the stories and the experiences we need to pass on to our younger generation. My condolences to the Fragner family.
    Reply to this
  • 2/25/2011 6:51 PM Matt Dejanovich wrote:

    Fred did many home inspectons for me over the years. I am shocked and saddened to hear of his passing...I didn't even know he was sick. This is a great tribute to him and his commitment to his family. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this
  • 2/27/2011 6:19 PM Big O wrote:
    It's funny my good friend and neighbor were just talking about this last night. About how too many parents want to butt in too much, and some of these parents played D1 sports. I have coached youth sports for 6 yrs now with the last year at the HS level, all as a volunteer and as former D1 athlete. My two boys have always played in the sports I've coached too, except for the JV HS football team this past season. Anyway, we were talking about how many parents get carried away with there opinions and input for their kids. Those parents that think their kid is going to be the next D1 or pro athlete. I have always been very objective with my boys, and even tougher on them then the other boys on the team. I have been fortunate not to have parents go over board with me, but I have seen too many parents that do. They just don't get it. I use sports for my boys to build discipline, character, teamwork, competitiveness and imagine this for having some fun! Thanks John for the article and my prayers go out to Fred and his family and friends.
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  • 3/11/2011 11:18 AM John U. Bacon wrote:
    Thanks to all for your kind words about a great man. Very gratified that this resonated with you, because almost all of us were lucky enough to have a coach like Fred Fragner along the way, and we know what a difference they can make.

    Stan, it took me two takes to get through it without getting choked up. There's your answer.

    And Big O, I always find it interesting that, as a rule, the farther my friends went as athletes, the saner they are as sports parents. (Though not always!)

    Again, to all, thanks. I know the Fragner family appreciates your words, too.

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