A humbling experience

Mark Bell completed his debt to society in San Jose, Calif., for a 2006 incident in which he was...

Mark Bell completed his debt to society in San Jose, Calif., for a 2006 incident in which he was charged with felony drunk driving with injury, along with hit-and-run. (Sun Media/Mark O'Neill)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Surrounded by drug addicts, wife-beaters and other convicted felons, Mark Bell quietly picked up pieces of garbage out of the tall grass under the sweltering California summer sun.

It was, he admits, as far removed from the pampered lifestyle of the National Hockey League as you could get.

For 11 weeks this was Mark Bell's life. Every morning, he would report to a California correctional facility to learn of that day's assignment. It might be cleaning up litter. Or it could involve landscaping duties. Whatever dirty job he was assigned, he did it.

"It humbles you," Bell said yesterday. "It gives you humility. More than anything else, that is probably the biggest change in me."

On Monday, a California court decided that the Maple Leafs forward had completed his debt to society, a three-month work program that was his punishment for a 2006 incident in which he was charged with felony drunk driving with injury, along with hit-and-run.

Having been given the green light to go home, Bell hopped on a plane Tuesday, spent the night in Toronto, then drove to his home town of St. Paul's yesterday.

And with that, his two-year nightmare was over.

Keep one thing in mind. Mark Bell does not want your sympathy. Nor does he deserve it. He did the crime, he did the time.

"The first day was the toughest," Bell recalled. "You feel like you are being dropped off in the middle of the world.

"I would go out, do the work and keep my head down. As part of our work crew, there were all sorts of people. Ninety percent of them were in for drugs but there were also people who were in for domestic violence. Some were there for DUI, like me.

"Whatever the case, I never let myself get emotionally attached to any of them. I didn't want to know their business, I didn't want them to know mine."

Through it all, as he spent hour after hour in this environment of rehabbing criminals, one thing kept him going.

"I just kept thinking of the good things in my life, my family, my friends, things like that," he said. "I'm very blessed. I'm still relatively young. I'm only 28. My life is still ahead of me.

"At the same time, I'm proud of what I've overcome."

That was the past. What of the future?

When Bell's disappointing first season as a Maple Leaf ended, he heard and read reports suggesting he might be bought out during the off-season. All he was told during his end-of-season meeting with management was to "get through the summer, then come to camp."

In the end, the Leafs were true to their word. Unlike buyout victims Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, Bell is still here. For the time being.

"He will come to training camp and he'll have to convince the coach he deserves to be on the team," general manager Cliff Fletcher said.

That coach is Ron Wilson, who was behind the Sharks bench during Bell's one season in San Jose -- 2006-07. It was not a season to remember for Bell who, having rammed into a truck while intoxicated prior to training camp, compiled just 21 points in 71 games before being traded to the Leafs at the 2007 entry draft.

Last season was not any better. With litigation hanging over his head, he had just 10 points in 35 games.

He plans to change that this time around. Because he was not required to spend nights at the Santa Clara County correctional facility, he lived with friends, using his spare time to work out at the Sharks gym.

"Physically and mentally, I'm the best I've been in two years," Bell said. "(Wilson) never saw the real Mark Bell in San Jose. I have a lot to prove, not only to the Leafs and their fans, but to myself."

Tonight, Bell will host the third annual Mark Bell Pyramid Classic fund-raising hockey game in St. Marys. Among those joining him will be Leafs teammates Matt Stajan and Boyd Devereaux, Detroit Red Wings' Aaron Downey and former Leafs great Doug Gilmour.

It certainly will be an improvement on the company Mark Bell was keeping the past three months.


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