Devyn's Village: Mentors have helped 9-year-old's dream of playing hockey come true

Gene Bondeson is spending his golden years at outdoor hockey rinks. For that, he has Pat Daly to blame. Call 'em the odd couple. Daly, 57, is the hockey lifer, the guy who first picked up a stick at the age of 7. His version of a nightcap is help...

Pat Daly (left) and Gene Bondeson of Duluth mentor 9-year-old hockey player Devyn Dreher of Duluth at the Woodland rink. Clint Austin /

Gene Bondeson is spending his golden years at outdoor hockey rinks.

For that, he has Pat Daly to blame.

Call 'em the odd couple.

Daly, 57, is the hockey lifer, the guy who first picked up a stick at the age of 7. His version of a nightcap is helping to flood a rink.

The 66-year-old Bondeson, a "semi-retired" truck driver who still picks up a few routes for Superior-based Halvor Lines, knows more about power steering than power plays.


"I know nothing about hockey," he says unapologetically.

Regardless, Bondeson looked right at home earlier this month in a Zamboni shack at the Woodland outdoor rinks, next to Fryberger Arena. The nondescript building provided respite from temperatures that danced toward zero outside. Bondeson was bundled up in a black jacket and green winter hat, both of which bore "Woodland Hockey" logos. Nearby was Daly, wearing a black "Duluth Marshall" jacket and white Sammy's Pizza ballcap.

This is how they spend countless winter nights - side-by-side watching a team of squirts figure this slippery sport out.

As pint-sized players clunked across a rubber mat, headed for the ice, Bondeson and Daly finished each other's sentences. Conversation was lively. They gave the impression of being longtime friends.

The reality: These two met less than five years ago.

"We didn't even know each other before all this," Bondeson said. "Now we're buddies."

Their friendship revolves around hockey. But the foundation starts with Devyn Dreher.

Take a boy skating


Devyn is a 9-year-old with a shock of curly brown hair. When he was 5, his mother, Cathy Archer, wanted to register him for hockey, but she didn't have the means. She mentioned the predicament to Daly while cutting his hair - Archer worked at Woodland Hair Fashions for 27 years before a breast cancer diagnosis in December 2013.

Daly's light went on. His youngest child, Joe, was a junior on Marshall's hockey team and fast approaching the end of his prep career. Daly was running out of reasons to be at the rink. That prospect was disconcerting. So he offered to take Devyn skating, see if the boy enjoyed himself.

He did.

"The next year I signed him up for hockey," Daly said.

By then, Devyn was spending more and more time at the Woodland home of Gene and Shirley Bondeson. He had long been close with the next-door neighbors, and that relationship offered solace as Archer battled cancer. Devyn had his own bedroom there; he often slept overnight. What Archer, a single mom, couldn't supply for the youngest of her four children, the Bondesons filled in the gaps.

That included getting the youngster to practice and games, along with Daly. Together, they made sure Devyn never went without. They still do.

In November, Archer lost her house in a foreclosure. While she gets back on her feet, Devyn has been staying at the Bondesons' residence. The couple never had children of their own. Yet, here they are, welcoming Devyn into their home, helping him with schoolwork, getting him to hockey, toting him to their cabin on the Little Fork River near Orr.

"When he was living next door, he was here half the time anyway," Gene said. "He's been in and out of our house from diapers until today."


While her husband eases into retirement, Shirley is already there, from North Shore Bank of Commerce.

"We're not as young as we look," Gene joked.

As they spoke recently in their living room, with Daly on the couch, Devyn sat patiently on the edge of an arm chair, breezers on in anticipation of that night's practice. In his hands, he twirled the hockey stick he paid for himself, dipping into a savings account earmarked for a new dirt bike. Devyn plans to ride it at the cabin.

He's become quite the outdoorsman.

Gene's influence.

Occasionally, the pupil outperforms the teacher. Last fall, Gene shot seven grouse.

"I got 13," Devyn was quick to note. He had the photos to prove it.

Devyn does more than just hunt the birds.


"He shoots them, he cleans them and he cooks them," Shirley said.

A fourth-grader at Duluth Edison, Devyn is well-spoken and confident. Energetic, too. His favorite "subject" is gym, and his favorite athlete is New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Devyn himself has the kind of arm strength that suggests a future in football - if his mom allows it. For now, he's all about hockey.

"He practices for an hour after practice," Gene deadpanned.

During a tournament last month, falling snow was piling up on the ice.

"We were visitors at Piedmont, and Devyn was the only one out there shoveling the rink off," Mike Horvat, Devyn's coach, said. "He just wants to be out there skating."

Devyn plays right wing. He has a heavy, reliable shot, honed in the Bondesons' basement, garage and on their driveway.

"We play knee hockey until I'm ready to drop," Gene said.

Gene might struggle to keep up, but he has a distinct size advantage that he's not afraid to use.


"He likes to knock me around when we're playing knee hockey," Devyn said.

"Hey, checking's allowed - I make the rules," Gene responded.

The visit eventually was interrupted by the clock. Practice beckoned. Devyn pulled on a large maroon UMD jersey, loaded up his hockey bag, which could double as a one-man tent, and slipped through the front door.

"I know it's hard for him not to be with me, but he's at the perfect place," Archer, 50, said by phone a few days later.

Daly finds his fix

The way he describes it, Pat Daly's motives were "cold and calculated." In Devyn, he saw a way to satisfy his hockey fix.

"It's a long, dark winter if every night at 4:30 you watch the sun go down and sit at home," Daly said while sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup in the shack. "Come here each night and pretty soon March 15 is here and winter's over."

That may have spurred Daly to sign Devyn up for hockey initially, but something happened along the way. It became more than just a game. It became an outlet, a classroom where Devyn learns about hard work and commitment. He's part of a team.


"As the years have clicked by, it's grown into so much more than that," Daly said.

A bond was born. Daly takes Devyn shopping for new equipment. On one of those outings, Devyn had his heart set on special hockey gloves that were twice as expensive as the pair favored by Daly, who doesn't come across as easily swayed.

They left with the expensive gloves.

Daly and his wife, Julie, have two children, both of whom are in their 20s. Like his father and grandfather before him, Daly attended Duluth Cathedral, where he played hockey.

When he was kicking around the idea of sponsoring Devyn's participation, he mentioned to Julie that things could get pricey if Devyn stuck with it. She didn't hesitate - they'd foot the bill.

Daly, who owns Sammy's Pizza in Hermantown, says his and Devyn's is a two-way relationship. He's getting something out of the deal, too. He's thankful he made the decision five years ago to take the boy skating.

"I'm super grateful I did it and that it's worked out so well. Certainly worked well for me - I made a new friend," he said, surveying a scene teeming with young players, parents and coaches. "Let's be honest - 30 new friends."

Bondeson never too busy

How's this for irony?

Gene Bondeson decided early on he didn't want children. That conclusion left him with more time to ... look after youngsters.

A passel of them have benefited from the Bondesons' benevolence.

"All summer long I was around during the day, painting or doing whatever, and there was always a bunch of little kids watching me do whatever I did," Gene recalled. "I was just a neighborhood guy that seemed like was always around. Even though I worked 70 hours a week, I did it nights and weekends.

"I like kids. Like the Pied Piper, they follow me around. Just say, 'Hi, how are ya?' and you're buddies for life."

Many of those buddies' pictures hang on the Bondesons' refrigerator.

There were two neighbor children who arrived home from school an hour before their parents were done working. Every day they spent that time at the Bondesons'.

And Gene beams when he says seven neighborhood kids caught their first walleye in his boat.

"I've been to a million Christmas programs," he said. "We buy birthday cards in the big boxes."

The Bondesons stay busy, no doubt. Some weeks, Devyn practices Monday through Thursday, with games on the weekend. It can be a grind. Gene calls himself the "taxi driver."

He isn't complaining. After Devyn's team won a recent tournament on its home rink, Gene clung to the championship trophy.

"He was grinning from ear to ear," Coach Horvat said.

"I get excited, I get all revved up," Gene said. "I'm holding the trophies and people are taking pictures. I just love it."

So does Devyn.

"This hockey thing is really good for him," Gene said. "It's just a really good thing for a kid, and every kid should have something like that, something you can really sink your teeth into."

Devyn has found his "something."

"This kid would not have been playing hockey without Pat and without the support of Gene," said Andre Beaudry of the Woodland hockey association, who helps coach Devyn's team.

Gene, like Pat, deflects credit like a goalie deflecting a wrist shot. Someone has to coach. Someone has to make and maintain the ice. Someone has to open up the building and turn the lights on. Those folks - mostly volunteers - deserve praise, too.

"If nothing else comes out of this, what a marvelous group of people in this hockey community," said Gene, this trucker-turned-taxi driver whose eyes were on the verge of springing a leak.

"It takes Pat and me and a village to raise this child."

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