Mike Ulmer has worked for seven news organizations including the National Post and, most recently, the Toronto Sun. Mike has written about the Leafs for 10 years and wrote Captains, a book about the club’s greatest leaders.
Mark Bell strides out the dressing room door of the Maple Leafs practice rink and the huddled media brace for another tale from an athlete gone wrong.
Athletes in trouble with the law habitually describe their situation as something that happened to them not something they made happen.
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis compared himself to Jesus Christ after members of his entourage killed a man and triggered charges against the Ravens star. Michael Vick spoke of the personal pain dog fighting charges had brought to his mother and told the world he was innocent…that is before before pleading out.
Bell, 27, is on indefinite suspension through the Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health policy administered through the NHL and NHLPA. Doctors, one from the players’ association, one from the league, will determine when he can be safely reintegrated into the sport. For now, he is suspended without pay.
“I’m a year into the program, it’s all part of it,” he said. “I just want to keep moving on and keep forging ahead.”
On Labour Day, 2006, Bell, then a member of the San Jose Sharks, slammed his rented vehicle into a car at a stop sign in Milpitas, California. The crash injured the driver of the stopped car. Bell left the scene but was picked up by police soon after.
Bell entered a plea of no-contest to the charges. He was sentenced to six months beginning after the season. That stint might be reduced to four months for good behaviour.
Bell has long since quit drinking and has been working steadily with doctors. He has not relapsed. He is also saying some remarkable things.
He did the crime he was accused of doing. He doesn’t blame anyone else. He is sorry and he will embrace his punishment. Yes, embrace.
“I know, the worst possible scenario for me,” he said. “I look forward to it and I look forward to getting on the ice with my teammates.
“I’m not running away from the mistake I made a year ago,” Bell said. “I’m meeting it head on and taking the steps necessary to make it better and learn from it.”
Mark Bell is clear-eyed and earnest. There was better than a dozen media people looking for his reaction to his suspension. Bell said it was fine by him.
“That (the media attention) is the kind of thing I look forward to dealing with head on. I just want to move ahead and hopefully I can do that in a positive manner and you guys will help me out.”
Bell said eliminating booze from his life hasn’t darkened his mood.
“I’m still the fun guy that I was before, smiling and working hard,” he said.
Bell reckoned this year should actually be easier than last. Bell, who had scored 25 goals in the league, slumped to a piddly 11 and 10 assists in the wake of the accident.
When asked about the thought of jail, he said: “you deal with it. Last year was a little tougher, not knowing.”
Leafs general manager John Ferguson believes Bell will be available to the team at training camp.
"I have to trust his continued compliance (with the program) will be viewed favourably and he will be permitted to participate in training camp."
"He has undertaken to assume full responsibility and we as an organization are behind him."
Bell can’t say enough good things about the support he has received from Leafs’ employees, from the top offices down to the trainers. It has helped him manage the effects of the fallout.
“It happened,” said Mark Bell of the moment that forever altered the course of his life. “It’s a year that’s passed and it changed my life. I’ve pushed ahead and looked forward to the future. I think my best hockey is ahead of me.”