Optimism runs high in any locker room just before the start of a season -- even one that has six rookies in the lineup. But looking back now on the 2003-04 campaign, Mark Bell admits that he knew how difficult it would be for the Blackhawks to contend for a spot in the postseason.
"You look at your roster and you think, we've got to win some one-goal games and win some big games on the road just to slip into the playoffs," Bell told chicagoblackhawks.com.
With a retooled roster that features eight new veterans, including All-Star free agent pickups Nikolai Khabibulin in net and Adrian Aucoin on defense, Bell is expecting a whole lot more this season than just squeaking in with a little luck.
"I feel like I'm 18 years-old coming to my first camp again," Bell said. "Now it's just a totally different mind-set for me. We want to win the conference.
"We know we can win every night, and for me it's just so exciting to have that in your mind and to come to the rink every day and have fun and enjoy it."
Bell repeatedly uses the word "fun" when discussing the upcoming season, inspired largely by the Blackhawks' recent hiring of Trent Yawney as head coach. Bell played in 61 games under Yawney in his first year out of junior (2000-01), posting 15 goals and 27 assists before earning a 13-game call-up with the Hawks.
"Trent has paid his dues," Bell said. "He's done a fantastic job in Norfolk and he was absolutely great for me down there. I have all the respect in the world for that guy. That's what I'm talking about with the atmosphere and having fun; that's what we want to create."
A center when he was drafted out of Ottawa (OHL) in 1998, Bell has spent the majority of his time in Chicago on the wing. But Yawney believes Bell is the answer to the Blackhawks' hole at center with Tyler Arnason, Curtis Brown and newly-acquired Jim Dowd filling the other three spots. Bell is eager to see what he can do at his old position.
"I talked to Trent and I was excited," Bell said. "I've been playing a little center here and there in the last three years, just taking face-offs pretty much and then getting off. Now I'll be able to create some more things for my linemates rather than just going up and down."
Bell's goal output jumped from 14 goals in 2002-03 to 21 in 2003-04. As much as he enjoys scoring goals, he won't be disappointed if that number drops a bit in favor of more assists.
"I like scoring goals, but setting them up is just as enjoyable," Bell said. "If I play more center, I get more assists. That's the way it is. You touch the puck more."
Waiting Is The Hardest Part
Bell's off-season agenda is a simple one: train hard in the summer and be ready for the start of training camp. But when the middle of October rolled around and the lockout appeared likely to drag on, Bell couldn't wait any longer. He was going to play somewhere. Anywhere.
"It's a hockey hotbed where I come from," Bell said of his native St. Paul's, Ontario. "And when camp didn't come, and then another month went by, I just couldn't take it."
Following a call from hometown friend Duane Harmer at the end of October inquiring whether he was interested in joining him over in Norway, Bell packed his bags, grabbed his passport and was in the "Land of the Midnight Sun" a week later.
"It was great," Bell says of his European experience. "The Scandinavian people and the people of Norway were great to me."
Bell had little trouble adjusting to a new league and style of play, recording 10 goals, 17 assists and 87 penalty minutes in 25 regular season games with Trondheim IK, and adding 12 more points (6-6) in the playoffs. The biggest challenge was adjusting to the cultural and geographical differences.
"Everything was smaller; the cars, the houses," Bell said. "The only bad thing is that it's really dark there, like for 18-19 hours a day. But I got a chance to read a lot of books.
"Our coach (Tommy Sandlin) was great, very technical. I worked on my skills every day. Hopefully I'm a better player for that."
Signings No Surprise
While many Blackhawk fans may have been skeptical about new general manager Dale Tallon's repeated claims that the Hawks would aggressively try to improve the club through free agency, the recent rush of acquisitions didn't shock Bell at all. As a player who has had numerous discussions with Tallon over the past few years, Bell was well aware of the organization's plan to revitalize the franchise.
"I wasn't really surprised that he signed these big name guys because I really truly believe that they want to win here, and now it has become abundantly clear," Bell said.
"I'm so excited with the things we've done in the free agent market and the guys we've signed, going back to last summer too," Bell added. "Nothing against Joce (Jocelyn Thibault); he did amazing things for this organization. I respect him as a player and a person. But going forward, Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the best goaltenders in the league and he's here in Chicago now, so that's very exciting for all of us."
With the signings of seasoned veterans such Jassen Cullimore, Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe, among others, one of the most intriguing questions at training camp will concern the captain's role left vacant since the departure of Alex Zhamnov. As a player who was drafted by the Hawks and has played his entire career here -- and has served previously as an alternate captain -- Bell almost certainly will be a candidate for the position.
But taking himself out of the running, who would be his choice to lead the Blackhawks?
"My vote would go with Kyle [Calder]," Bell said. "I've played with him for 200-some games. We were drafted together and came up together. We're still fairly young, but we've played all of our games here in Chicago. He wants to win just as badly as I do.
"There's nothing that I want more and that every other guy that has played for the Blackhawks wants than to win in Chicago."
Now what could be more fun than that?
Email web producer Adam Kempenaar at firstname.lastname@example.org.