Turning over a new Maple Leaf

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

Mark Bell wasn't expecting to sleep much last night.

But, for the first time in 14 months, that will be a good thing.

Tonight marks the much-anticipated debut of Bell as a Maple Leaf when he lines up -- probably alongside John Pohl and Kyle Wellwood -- against the Senators at Scotiabank Place. "I've been thinking about this night a lot. I'm excited and I'm sure I'll have some little butterflies," he said yesterday.

"When you're looking forward to something so much and there's so much hype you just try to block it all out and keep it simple."

It is the first time he will play an NHL game since pleading no contest to drunk driving and hit-and-run charges, that prosecutors in California believe will see him serve up to six months in jail.

To his Maple Leafs team-mates, hard time is facing an Ottawa team that is 19-1 since the start of training camp.

In Bell's world, facing hard time has a much more sinister meaning.

"I've tried to meet it head on and I'll continue to do that," he said.

His drinking damaged his reputation, may cost him his liberty and has resulted in being banished from the game he loves.

He admits he had nobody to blame but the guy holding the bottle. So, he doesn't hold one anymore. Ever.

"It's just not a part of my life anymore," he says of the Brewskie Culture.

"It wasn't that hard (to quit) once everyone knows in your inner circle. It wasn't that hard to stop ... it wasn't that big a part of my life in the first place.

"The most important thing to me is hockey. I'll have lots of time to hang out with my buddies when my career is over."

Bell thought he was looking at a fresh start when he was traded from San Jose to Toronto.

But, then, NHL commissioneer Gary Bettman tied him to the press-box chair with a 15-game suspension. "The guys here rallied around me and I think they were as upset, maybe more upset than me, that I had to miss games," Bell said.

As the team foundered during the opening weeks, as injuries hit Wellwood, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, there has been the sentiment that "if only Mark Bell could play ..."

So, how does it feel to be the designated saviour?

"I can't wait for Mark Bell to come back either," he said, laughing.

"I'm going to be excited about it but more than that it's going to be a relief to get back on the ice and compete.

"I feel more comfortable on the ice, this place (Lakeshore Lions Arena) and the ACC have been a haven for me to come and put everything away and just do my thing."

Bell scored just 11 goals last season with San Jose and has admitted the drop-off in his play probably had a lot to do with the fact he "felt sick" about what he had done.

This autumn, says Vesa Toskala, who came to Toronto along with Bell, there has been a marked difference.

"It's hard to see inside people's heads but he's always smiling, always talkative,'' Toskaka said. "It's one of those things that you hope would never happen.

"But I think he's handled it as well as anyone could."

The bottle evidently is the only thing he has ever quit on. "As a player he's smart and he always stands up for his teammates," Toskala said.

Bell may have done a bad thing but that does not mean he's a bad person.

"He has been a treat to have around the rink," coach Paul Maurice said.

But some days you saw him and some days -- like the ghost of Bill Barilko prowling the Gardens -- you didn't.

It has been a bit like Waiting For Godot.

Someone's supposed to show up; but nobody's quite sure who, or what that someone will be.

"He has good hands, he's big, he can bang a little bit, he has a huge shot," Maurice said.

The coach, mostly, said he'd like to see Bell "just have some fun."

Interesting concept: Someone in a Maple Leafs jersey having fun?

And, here you thought miracles on ice never happened anymore.


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