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A Season of Moving Forward...

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
(TORONTO) - When pressed, Mark Bell will smile at the irony of it.

He is a role model…for all of the imperfect people.

His first year with the Maple Leafs produced four goals. It featured a 15-game suspension, a broken orbital bone and infamy in Ottawa.  He will spend most of the off season in jail.

But the season, remarkably also brought an understanding of what’s important and who is really in his corner.

He has been afforded humility, forgiveness, maybe even peace.

“There have been a lot of hard days but I think it has been a victory,” said Bell. “It’s just that a lot of times, it didn’t feel that way.”

Mark Bell had just about everything coming into the NHL. Chicago’s eighth choice in 1998 draft, he is six-foot-two and handsome with an easy way that reflects his small town upbringing in St. Paul’s, Ontario, population 80 or so.

Chicago traded him to San Jose in 2006, but his life began to freefall that September when he hit a pickup at a red light in a San Jose suburb. It was an intersection of two imperfect lives.

The man behind the wheel of the pickup didn’t have a driver’s licence or insurance. Mark Bell, a millionaire hockey player then with the San Jose Sharks had a blood alcohol level of 1.5, nearly twice the legal limit. The man sustained head and chest injuries. Bell left the scene and was found a short distance away.

Bell, expected to provide a high-scoring wingman for Joe Thornton, saw his offence dry up in the wake of the accident. He pleaded no contest to the accident and was traded to the Leafs with Vesa Toskala. The NHL piled on with a 15-game suspension.  Bell couldn’t find a spot back in the lineup and wasn’t fully recovered from a knee injury when he returned.

“We had 15 healthy forwards and he didn’t get much of a chance,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice.

The hits just kept coming. Bell sustained a broken orbital bone in a fight with Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone. He missed 31 games and came back a full cage. In one of his first games back, a puck found the one unguarded area on his body, his neck.

Bell looked North and begged for a break.

“I got hit with the puck three seconds into the game. I was like, ‘I’ve got a full mask on and I got hit in the neck. What the heck is this?’ I mean, it was the only place in my body I could get hurt.”

Late in the season, his open ice hit of Daniel Alfredsson and another collision with Mike Fisher knocked both out of the lineup for the playoff-bound Sens.

Despite his meager goal total he was markedly faster and more physical in the season’s final games but summer’s respite will bring jail in California for Mark Bell.  He does not know how long he will spend in custody although it could be in the area of four months.

“I haven’t actually been sentenced yet,” he said. “I’m waiting to find out what’s going to happen with regard to the summer.”

All that said, Mark Bell feels lucky.

He is living a life without alcohol.

Bell never considered himself an alcoholic. But when he looked at his life and at the accident, he found he no longer wanted booze in his life. Bell hasn’t had a drink since the crash.

The first thing to go was the fair-weather friends.

“It’s been 19 months since it happened,” Bell said. “I learned who my friends are, who I don’t really need in my life any more. I found that out within a month of being sober. You find that out right away.”

Bell said he was not addicted to alcohol. It was just part of his lifestyle.

“My goal was not ‘let’s go out and have 100 beers. It was social, like everyone else. It wasn’t a problem.’”

Still, Bell, was sick of the shadow it cast on his life and sick of how booze was part of the way people would see him.

“I just said, ‘you know what? I don’t want to be known as the person who drank too much. I don’t want to be known as that. I can’t take back what happened, but from this point on, I’m going chalk it up as a mistake and learn from it.’ If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re an idiot.”

The challenge for Bell and it is a problem that is relatively unique, is that alcohol is if not a staple, then at least a feature, of the life of the pro athlete and has been since someone first kept score. It goes with dinner in a new town and the post-game wind-down on the road. Young, athletic men in their 20s often like to drink and the alternative, a monastic life inside his hotel room, never appealed to Bell.

“I wanted to enjoy my teammates. That’s what you miss what you retire, that’s the best part, being with your teammates, not ordering sea bass in your room.”

Bell said he found absolute acceptance from the Leafs..

“Everybody knows what’s going on. I had nothing to hide.  Not drinking was not even an issue. I would just get a sparkling water.”

He also found support from players. A few taunted him last season, and then later quietly apologized. This season, not a word was said.

People whose life had been touched by drinking and driving reached out to him.

“I got some really good fan mail that I read from people who really touched my heart. It was really emotional for me to read some of the stories. That kindness was unbelievable and they didn’t ask me for a thing. They just wanted to tell their story.”

Bell’s mistake, and that is a word he uses compulsively, has even introduced new hues to the colour schemes of his judgment.

Everything is no longer black and white. Sometimes, often, people do the wrong thing and would do anything to change it. Don’t judge is a pillar of the philosophy Mark Bell has taken out of his difficulties.

“When I see articles about people making mistakes, I don’t judge anyone anymore,” he said.

“I look at people and I give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I’m wrong, or gullible or from a small town, but I also know what can happen. Mistakes are a part of life.  You just have to pick yourself up and move on.”

Whether moving on includes the final year of his contract in Toronto is the larger question. He will be working out with the Sharks strength coach in jail and is hopeful of being in top condition.

But even if he doesn’t come back, Bell has written a successful season on his personal resume. The career stats will show a four-goal year in Toronto. Mark Bell and the others who know him will see something entirely different.

 “I hope it’s a good story for him,” said Maurice. “I want to see him come back, 100 per cent healthy, after a summer where he can get in good shape. I wanted to see him given an opportunity to be the player we all thought he was.”



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