'Just gut-wrenching'

Leafs forward Mark Bell laughs at practice Sunday after completing his 15-game suspension....

Leafs forward Mark Bell laughs at practice Sunday after completing his 15-game suspension. (SUN/Mark O'Neill)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:26 PM ET

OTTAWA -- Mark Bell strolled a short distance from The Accident, attempting to make sense of a mistake he knew he would pay dearly for.

Just moments earlier, his world had come to a crashing halt when, while intoxicated, he rear-ended a pickup truck with his Toyota sedan, sending waves of chaos rippling through the normally quiet Milpitas, Calif., night.

"It was just gut-wrenching," Bell said this past weekend, attempting to explain what was running through his mind on that fateful evening.

"Every part, every aspect, every corner of your life goes through your mind in the course of a minute.

"You are sick about it. You want to puke."

It was a feeling that simply did not go away after a good night's sleep.

"Those were the worst days of my life," he said. "I was just embarrassed and ashamed of my poor judgement."

WON'T LET HIM

Fourteen months after The Accident, Mark Bell still can't forget. His conscience won't let him. The authorities won't let him. And, when he steps on to the ice at Scotiabank Place tomorrow night to make his Maple Leafs debut, you can bet that the sharp-tongued hecklers in the stands won't let him, either.

This will be more than just his inaugural appearance as a Leaf. It also marks the first time he will play an NHL game since he pleaded no contest to drunk driving and hit-and-run charges, which Santa Clara County officials claim will land him in jail for six months.

"People have been really nice to me," he said. "Not once has anyone said anything demeaning to me. But I'm sure once I get into some of these opposing rinks, I'll be getting the gears from them. I accept that."

Thankfully for him, not everyone in the crowd will be members of the Bell-bashing fraternity.

His parents, John and Connie, will be on hand to see their son finally suit up for the Leafs after serving his NHL-imposed 15-game suspension. Bell estimates about 30 family and friends are coming to the game.

Check that. Make it 31.

"I'll be there cheering for him, you bet," Ottawa 67's coach Brian Kilrea confirmed last night. "But I won't go see him. I'll leave him alone. He'll be with his family, which is the way it should be."

From 1996 until 2000, Kilrea watched a skinny kid from St. Pauls, Ont., put on a 67's jersey and mature into a complete player, one selected eighth overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the '98 entry draft.

"He was always a happy-go-lucky guy, a free spirit who came here, worked hard, paid his dues and improved to the point that he became an NHLer," Kilrea said.

"But sometimes, with success, comes difficulty in handling it for some of these kids. They suddenly are confronted with having all this money, the accompanying pressures and, sometimes, it leads to mistakes.

"We knew he had a small problem, but he has handled it as well as I've ever seen. He made a mistake, he has owned up to it and he has been up- front about it.

"I'm very proud of him."

Bell will be integrated slowly into the Leafs lineup, with coach Paul Maurice leaning toward putting him on the fourth line for a few games until he can shed the rust.

Prior to the suspension, the Leafs' blueprint had Bell centring the third line. Maurice told Bell, still just 27, to forget about stats and concentrate on being a real tough bleepin' bleep to play against.

Bell has shown he can score on a regular basis, sewing together seasons of 21 and 25 goals during his tenure with the Blackhawks.

But after being picked up by the Sharks in the summer of '06, he could never recover from the haunting memories of The Accident. Despite starting the season on a line with superstar Joe Thornton, he could accumulate only 11 goals.

This past summer, Bell carefully studied video of his ill-fated season with the Sharks, attempting to find answers any way he could.

"What I saw was, yes, that was my body I was watching on the screen, but it wasn't me," he said. "I tried to put all that (accident) stuff behind me last season. But the reality is, an incident like that takes a lot of your energy level away.

"I view this as a new start for me in Toronto, both for my life and my hockey career. I look at San Jose like it never happened.

"I honestly feel my best hockey is ahead of me. I believe in my talent and I think I just scratched the surface in Chicago."

CHARITABLE WORK

During his first two seasons with the Blackhawks, Bell's training-camp roommate was former Leafs captain Doug Gilmour, who watched the youngster's charitable work mushroom to the point where the he once was named Chicago's man of the year.

As a result, it was Gilmour who endorsed Bell's character to Leafs management at the time of the trade.

"I know his personality," Gilmour said yesterday. "I know who he is. I know he is a standup guy.

"We just have to give him a little time. We can't just judge him on one game. We have to wait until the end of the season for that."

Through it all, Bell has claimed, time and again that he has not touched a drop of alcohol since The Accident. No matter how bad things are, the allure of the bottle just has not been there.

"Honestly, I haven't wanted to have a drink," he said. "I'm a stubborn guy when I put my mind to something. And when I decided to change my life, that's what I was going to do.

"This is a new start, and I'm not going to screw it up."


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