Shawn Belle isn’t even an Edmonton Oiler yet — the freshly signed defenceman still has to make the team — but you’d never know it from the way he and Zack Stortini were swarmed by kids Wednesday for two hours worth of autographs, questions and wide-eyed gawks.
“I don’t think we realized it was going to take that long, but it was a lot of fun,” grinned Belle, who figured his first public appearance with the club, a visit to Oilers Hockey School in St. Albert, would last about 45 minutes.
“Growing up as a kid in Edmonton, any time I saw an Oiler or any hockey player I was really excited.
“I might not be with the Oilers at this moment in time, but if there’s a chance to give back I’ll always take that opportunity because I remember what it was like.”
The opportunity to come home again, where being an Oiler is just shy of royalty in the eyes of most kids, presented itself two weeks ago when the club offered him a one-year contract.
The deal barely made a ripple, not even in Edmonton, but it sent a tidal wave of excitement through Belle’s Terwillegar household.
“It was a pretty good moment for me, being able to sign with your hometown team is always special,” said the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder. “I’ve always loved the Oilers. I’ve always kept in touch with a few guys from the Oilers and I know a lot of people in the organization.
“I want to finally crack an NHL lineup for a whole season and it would be awesome to do that in front of my friends and family.
“This is kind of a good opportunity for me.”
Especially with the Oilers in a full-on rebuilding mode. They want players who are young, big and want to be in Edmonton and the 25-year-old is all three.
So far he’s been stuck in the minors, with only 11 NHL games to his credit, but he’s on the cusp in Edmonton, and depending on what happens with Sheldon Souray, training camp represents a chance to change his course.
“I don’t think they’re done making moves, but for me I just want to jump on the opportunity and grab it,” he said.
“I don’t know what the future is going to hold for me or for them, but as long as I’m here and able to fight for that spot I’m going to do whatever I can.
“The last few years in Montreal and Hamilton were pretty good for me, I felt I kind of jumped back up into the scene after a down year in Houston a couple of years ago. Now I feel like it’s time to take it to a new level.”
It’s not like other Edmonton-born defencemen before him haven’t made it to the show after paying five or six years worth of minor league dues.
“Johnny Boychuk was in the same position. He spent quite a few years in the minors and had a pretty solid year with the Providence Bruins and jumped on with Boston and hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m hoping to try and duplicate that and go from there.”