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'The best time of my life'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
The colour of the medal was silver but the memory?

Nothing but pure gold.

"It was the best time of my life," Ottawa Senators defenceman Brendan Bell said without hesitation as he recalled the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship, which was played before record crowds in Halifax and Sydney, N.S.

Canada rolled through the tournament with an unblemished record and carried a 2-1 lead into the third period of the gold-medal game. But Russia scored a pair of unanswered goals to deprive the team wearing the red maple leaf of a golden world junior moment in front of a full house of 10,974 at the Halifax Metro Centre.

Despite the result, it's a tournament Bell still calls "definitely my top hockey experience."

"I've been a part of some pretty cool events but that whole 10 days or whole month, even – that whole process – was as good as it got for me," he said. "I can pretty much remember it day by day. I can probably rhyme off (the names of) almost every guy on that team and where they're at now. It's about as much fun as you can have.

"Especially having played it in Canada, it was a terrific experience."

But maybe not so much the tense days before Bell, then a defenceman with the Ottawa 67's, finally knew he'd made the team.

"The notorious 5 a.m. phone calls ... if your phone rings, you're cut and if it doesn't, you're all right," he said in recalling a moment that's familiar to just about anyone who's ever been through the selection camp process. "It was unbelievable. It was so nerve wracking.

"I'm generally not a nervous guy but I remember those nights were a little sleepless. The phone rang one night and my roommate got cut, so I knew that if it was ringing the next couple (of times), it was for me. It was not a good feeling."

Knowing he'd made it? Now, that was almost beyond description.

"Relief, more than anything," Bell said in describing the moment. "Then I knew I'd get some sleep in the next couple of nights. Everything I'd worked for to that point was coming to a boiling point. It was an awesome, awesome feeling."

Bell isn't surprised the 2009 world juniors have been a runaway hit in Ottawa, with records shattered already for single-game and total tournament attendance.

"I remember going to the (1999) Memorial Cup when I was 15 and how much fun that was at the Civic Centre," he said. "This is the Memorial Cup times 10, almost. I know as a kid, Christmas time meant world juniors to me from the time I was old enough to remember it.

"I think it'll be a lot of fun and it'll be great for the city."

And as Bell can surely tell the current crop of Team Canada players, there really is no place like home for the world juniors.

"Having the home crowd behind you, for those junior guys, it's as close as you're going to get for an NHL game," he said. "Probably even better, because everybody is cheering for you. It's an experience that I hope they all realize you should enjoy as much as you can because it's gone pretty quickly."

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