Jean Beliveau once described how to comport himself at off-ice functions. His philosophy for a rubber chicken dinner in Woodstock or Okotoks explains his status as one of the most beloved sports figures in the country.
“When I accept something, I have always said do it right,” he said. “Too often, you see athletes at an event and they are looking at their watch wondering when this thing is going to be over. Maybe one of my secrets is to give the organization or individual more than they were expecting.”
Gordie Howe, a man whose off-ice gentleness extended to everyone, one described the agony of coming home with grades sabotaged by his dyslexia. That childhood pain brought him humility and a lifelong association with the weak, the quiet and the shy.
“I could remember quite often how I would bring back my report card, which was just horrible to my Mom,” he said. “She would pick me up and put me on her lap.”
These are men, gentlemen, who built the templates of comportment and dignity that remain in place today.
It is in this tradition that Mark Bell now walks.
Bell plays his first game for the Leafs tonight in Ottawa, the site of his junior days. He has sat out 15 games because of a suspension imposed by league Commissioner Gary Bettman.
In a world of hubris, a world where Conrad Black’s bullying brings him and others like him ruin and jail, a world that includes Michael Vick, a world where Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi glibly confirms that he routinely lies, Mark Bell tells the truth.
He drove drunk.
He left the scene of the accident.
He accepted the jail sentence that he will undertake at year’s end.
He did not proclaim his innocence to the media as Vick did. He did not impugn those charged with bringing him to justice, as Black did.
He didn’t appeal his suspension.
Bell made his mistakes. He has not had a drink since; the accident on Labor Day, 2006. He hopes, for surely no one can say this for sure, never to have another one. He has been continually tested for alcohol.
The first step in Alcoholics Anonymous and therefore, the blueprint to recovery for all 12-step programs, is the acceptance of powerlessness over alcohol. It’s not your hand on the rudder. No recovery is possible without humility.
Humility, if you consider the careers of those pretty good players mentioned above, is a useful quality in a professional hockey player. If it’s good enough for Jean and Gordie and, yes, Wayne, it’s likely good enough for the rest.
But humility is hard to maintain and, in the ornate setting of pro sports, it is easily lost. Once you think you have it, it’s gone.
But if you do not find humility, it will find you and it will not do so in a gentle way. Money will be lost, friendships or marriages will be destroyed, blood may even be spilled.
When it does find you, you had best pay attention, the way Dany Heatley, across the ice at the Ottawa bench, hopefully paid attention. And when it does find you, you need to welcome and nurture it.
Nothing about Mark Bell’s life is going to be easy. Alcohol saturates everyday life, let alone the existence of the athlete. Every day will bring heavy lifting.
Unflinching in his willingness to do right and to talk about having done wrong, Mark Bell returns tonight.
It is his first day as a Leaf, and his first day as that rarest thing in professional sports…a role model.