Former Minnesota Duluth hockey player Bob Bell gave a mini-tour of his garage last week in Duluth’s Congdon Park neighborhood, and it was about what one would expect from an old industrial arts education teacher.
“Shop class,” Bell said.
Everything was well organized and Bell wore a maroon Bulldogs hat you could tell he had worn a few times, or perhaps a few thousand times, to go with his red flannel shirt and dark jacket. In his “usual garage attire” as he called it, he then proceeded to show off some of the tools of his trade.
Neatly stacked along the one wall were little containers featuring every kind of nut and bolt imaginable. A little ways away, there was a drill press here, a table saw there, a belt sander, a planer, a jointer for making ripped edges smooth.
Bell, 74, uses his cutoff and bandsaws, a little epoxy and a couple screws to turn old broken down hockey sticks into walking canes that are like works of art he donates to anybody who wants one. Bell, who himself walks with a limp, knows the benefit of walking canes as it helps him keep his balance, especially on ice.
“The thing is, I want to give them away,” Bell said. “I don’t want any money for these things. If I can help somebody by making a cane, it gives me something to do, and it’s one thing less in the landfill. So if you know anybody that needs one, take one, but I need some more material.”
Modern composite hockey sticks, made with carbon fiber and the like, don’t break like the wooden ones, but Bell can turn either into walking canes.
If somebody has sticks to drop off, or needs a walking cane, contact Essentia Heritage Center general manager Shari Olson at (218) 623-7434 or (218) 348-2417.
Bell’s former teammate, Pat Francisco, and former longtime UMD equipment manager Rick Menz, were aware of Bell’s situation and wanted to help him out, so Menz sent out an email to the Bulldogs’ men’s hockey alumni earlier this month, the subject entitled, “Bulldog Strong.”
“I’ve always held Bob in high regard just for being a quality person,” Menz said. “The one thing we try to emphasize, and Bob understands this, you may have been here a relatively long time ago, but you’re still one of us, and that’s important to our former players.
“And more importantly, they’re all part of the community. That’s a huge emphasis on the alumni side, because the community embraces you when you come here, and to a man, I can’t think of one alum who hasn’t been a very community-oriented person. Bob is one of those guys. He’s one of us, and the guys rallied around him.”
From Proctor to UMD
Bell graduated from Proctor in 1963 and played hockey at UMD from 1963-67.
The 5-foot-10 Bell was a forward but played some center and even a little defense while on special teams. He quickly became known as a strong, gritty player who was never afraid to work the corners. He was hardworking and tenacious.
“He was an honest player,” Francisco said.
Bell was on the 1966 team that opened up the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, then called the Duluth Arena-Auditorium, with an 8-1 thumping of the Minnesota Gophers, and he was teammates with the likes of Francisco, Keith “Huffer” Christiansen, Bob Hill and Dick Fisher.
“As I like to say, ‘We nipped them 8-1,’” Francisco said, laughing.
While at UMD, Bell met Margy Enstad of Duluth, and they were married in 1968.
After graduating from UMD, Bell taught shop for about seven or eight years in the Twin Cities while remodeling houses in the summer.
Bell got out of teaching and, without a job, he, Margy and their three young children returned home to Duluth.
“You do what you have to do,” Bell said.
The couple have been in their Congdon Park home ever since, albeit with plenty of upgrades, thanks to Bell’s handiwork, including a remodeled kitchen and beefed up garage.
Bell worked construction for 30 years, mostly residential remodeling, and while he retired about 10 years ago, three decades of up-and-down, up-and-down have taken their toll.
Bell was asked if it was his knees, back or hips.
“Yes, yes and yes,” he said.
After what Bell called “abusing my body terribly,” he's had back surgery, three hip replacements and a shoulder replacement.
“When you’re younger your mind doesn’t coordinate with your body saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t be lifting that,’” Bell said, laughing.
Bell has relied on a cane the last few years.
“Here’s what my back looks like,” Bell explained, showing off an X-ray of his spine featuring two rods and 18 screws inserted four years ago.
Despite all that, Bell’s back still bothers him most.
Bell doesn’t have any surgeries coming up but is waiting on an elliptical machine so he can strengthen both his arms and legs.
“Bob’s spinal column looks like a section of the track out of the DM&IR,” Francisco said. “He’s got metal all the way up his back. He’s in pain constantly. He has trouble walking. His feet don’t cooperate right now, but he’s out in the alley every day working.”
Bell also has a John Deere snowblower, handling all the plowing up and down the alley for his neighbors.
“I made a little sign for it saying, ‘I’m bored and need some snow,’” Bell said.
He got his wish this week.
Francisco, a Duluth Denfeld graduate, waxed nostalgic about “the old days,” back when UMD hockey players still lived at home. When Francisco lost his license for speeding, Bell would come down from Proctor, pick up Francisco and head over to UMD.
UMD was a fledgling university starting to come of age, and former Bulldogs hockey goalie turned hockey coach turned athletic director Ralph Romano insisted on a community-first, do-it-all approach.
“You had to be part of the community,” Francisco said. “You had to encourage support, you had to speak at Blueline Club banquets, you had to be out in the community, you had to make friends and create a following and interest. This stuff doesn’t just fall off a tree. It has to be cultivated and built. They created a pretty unique place.”
And you were welcomed back, whether you were the star or a grunt.
“We can adore our sports stars and everything, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s all relationships, everything is relationships, everything is appreciation for people and being part of a broader team,” Francisco said. “That’s where it’s at. Duluth, for a smaller community, is doing a hell of a job that way, and Bobby is just an example of that.”
While Bell is the type to downplay anything he did, fortunately, he’s got Francisco to do his talking.
Francisco is a rabid UMD hockey fan, having seen all kinds of games, but he said Bell had the prettiest goal he has ever seen by a Bulldog.
It was against powerhouse Michigan Tech, with Bell starting behind his own net, dancing around the entire Tech team and roofing it over future NHL All-Star and Hockey Hall of Famer Tony Esposito.
“That’s one of my sports memories of Bob,” Francisco said. “Another was when the old wrestling coach, Lloyd Peterson, made us make up these classes (because the players traveled a lot). Lloyd would sit on this stool and tell us to wrestle, for whatever it was, the better part of an hour, and the two of us were just exhausted, and Bobby would just throw me around like a rag doll.
“When you think of Bobby Bell, think of Bobby Hull, from the Chicago Blackhawks, the Golden Jet. Well, Bobby had a blond crew cut. He was a mesomorph — strong and thick — that’s what he looked like when he played. He was probably 185 or 190 pounds when he was playing. He was a muscular guy. Now, he’s more like 150.”
From hockey stick to walking cane
Bell was asked when he discovered a hockey stick made a pretty slick walking cane.
“I just had a few hockey sticks in my basement and thought, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do with this?’” Bell recalled.
It was right up in his wheelhouse.
Bell loves tinkering on stuff. He’s the Inspector Gadget of plaster and plywood.
“I’ve got to have something to do,” Bell said. “I’m not a reader, and I’m not into books; I’ve got to be putzing with something.”
Bell cuts the hockey sticks/walking canes long knowing you can always cut more off for someone who prefers a shorter cane. The blade becomes the handle. He has made about a dozen since starting a couple months ago, saying they take about 2-3 hours apiece.
“It gives me something to do, and it’s a useful product for many people,” Bell said. “And they don’t have to pay fifty or seventy-five bucks for a cane.”
While always modest, Bell’s time at UMD helped mold and shape him. Francisco described his longtime friend as down to earth and humble, a proud example of UMD and the larger Duluth community he represents.
“Bobby symbolizes UMD’s hockey culture, which is marrying the players and the community,” Francisco said. “It’s been a wonderful relationship. It’s part of the UMD culture I think still exists today.
“Here’s Bobby, at 74 years old, broken down, nursing a lot of ailments, going out to his garage every day, using his talents to give back to the community. That to me is a magical example of the culture that UMD has fostered. I’m very proud to be part of that culture, and I’m very proud of Bobby.”