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Bell Looks Forward To First Game Next Tuesday

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
: Paul Maurice | Mark Bell | Chad Kilger | Andrew Raycroft | Jiri Tlusty

Mark Bell is ready to resume his NHL career.

``There's a light at the end of the tunnel,'' he said Thursday before the Toronto Maple Leafs headed out on a four-game road trip.

The 27-year-old forward will have served his 15-game suspension after Toronto plays in Montreal on Saturday night. Bell will make his Maple Leafs debut on Tuesday in Ottawa.

Practice has taken on a different feel as his debut draws closer. Bell has been around the team all year and looked downright giddy on Thursday as he contemplated actually getting into a game.

``It's been a long time since I played,'' said Bell, who last saw the ice for San Jose on May 7. ``I'm just looking forward to getting out there with the guys.''

The Maple Leafs acquired Bell from the Sharks in June along with goaltender Vesa Toskala.

His 15-game suspension came after he pleaded no contest to criminal drunk-driving charges stemming from his arrest last September in California. He is due to serve six months in a California county jail at the end of the season.

Bell hasn't had a drink since the incident and has accepted full responsibility for his actions. His new teammates have taken note of that.

``I don't know Mark that well, but he's been nothing but positive and upbeat,'' said Jason Blake. ``And he's worked his tail off. He's done everything that he can to get ready.

``I know it's a tough situation, but you've got to deal with it and move on. He's done that exactly and he's done that in a professional way.''

By all accounts, Bell has fit in well with his new teammates.

While he did a television interview on Thursday, Blake yelled his name repeatedly, causing Bell to break into laughter. It was one of several light moments in the locker-room after practice for a team that is looking to shake off a mediocre 5-5-3 start.

Blake, for one, was happy to see the calendar turn over into November so that he could leave the first month of the season behind. When asked how difficult it would be to miss 15 games, Blake dead-panned: ``I feel like I just missed 13.''

The free-agent signing has just two goals as a Maple Leaf after scoring 40 on Long Island last season.

Bell will be in the press box for Friday's game in New Jersey along with the game Saturday against the Canadiens. Then he'll get his chance to officially join the team.

``I hope he (feels comfortable),'' said captain Mats Sundin. ``He's been with us and we've had some team get-togethers and it really feels like he's part of the team even though he hasn't played in a game. I don't think he's been on the outside.''

While the layoff was forced because of his suspension, it might have come at a good time. Bell suffered a knee sprain early in training camp and has had lots of time to rehab the injury.

He's not feeling any lingering effects from the injury now. In fact, Bell is in fantastic shape after all the practice time he's had.

``How much more skating can he take?'' said coach Paul Maurice. ``He's missed an awful lot of hockey. It's tough to jump back in mid-season. On the upside, he's worked hard and he's in much better shape than when he got to camp.

``I know he's dying to get out there.''

Maurice plans to ease Bell into the lineup, giving him fourth-line minutes to start off with and increasing them as he appears more comfortable.

The team certainly thinks the six-foot-four, 220-pounder has plenty to contribute.

``I think he's going to bring a lot to this team when he comes back,'' said Blake. ``He's got toughness, grit, he can score goals. We're looking forward to his return.''

Bell's career has had a bit of roadblock in recent years. He had 25 goals and 48 points with Chicago in 2005-06, but saw his production slip last year in San Jose.

He's hoping to push it to a new level now that he's playing for the Maple Leafs. No matter what happens, he's been grateful for all the support so far.

``They've been great,'' Bell said of his teammates. ``They've been really supportive and really easy to get to know.

``I've got to thank the guys. They've been there for me. It was a tough situation for all of us.''
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