Barnstorming to keep 'edge'

Mark Bell in action last season with the Blackhawks. (Bruce Bennett Studios)

Mark Bell in action last season with the Blackhawks. (Bruce Bennett Studios)

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

SARNIA -- As Chicago Blackhawks winger Mark Bell said, it's a chance to play in smaller centres where some fans don't get a chance to see NHL players. Nearly 1,000 fans came out to see the Original Stars Hockey League's second game here yesterday. It was played in a border city against a heavy slate of NFL games.

The OSHL concept gave 25 of the locked out NHLers a chance to do some skating -- skating, stickhandling and shooting, but no hitting.

"There's a lot of respect out there for each other and we've got to be ready (not injured) to play," said Bell, a 24-year-old from St. Paul's, near Stratford.

The OSHL is giving some idle NHLers a chance to play in four-on-four concept at various rinks around Ontario as long as the impasse continues.

But Bell is itching for heavy action again.

"It's been a long summer. I haven't played since April," he said as the Blackhawks didn't make the playoffs.

He was home on the farm and working out in Stratford to keep in shape until the OSHL popped up. "I've got to keep up my competitive edge."

While Bell was playing for Team New York, Brian Willsie of Belmont, who now lives in Guelph, was with Team Chicago which won 13-8.

Willsie, a Washington Capitals forward and six-year pro, said the games can help players stay ready for when the NHL resumes, but "it's whatever you put into it."

Willsie said a lot of players were apprehensive about what they were getting into with the OSHL, but "it's well run and the guys are enjoying it."

There were more hits on Sarnia's radio stations in two minutes than there were in the entire game as it resembled an all-star contest.

Jim and Shelley Holbrook of Watford brought their two daughters, Heather, 17, and Laura 13, to the game at the insistence of Heather, the family's biggest hockey fan.

Wearing a Joe Sakic jersey, Heather said she wanted "to see some NHL stars" and her favourites out there were Matthew Barnaby and Dave Andreychuck.

Father Jim said the OSHL was a good concept, but the absence of hitting "takes a lot of the action out of it."

Jim shelled out $100 for a family pack of four tickets yesterday, but Shelley said it was too much. "And they need a couple of superstars on each team," Jim said.

Vancouver Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier had a tough start and had to endure because each team brings just one goalie. He let in five first-period goals as his New York team quickly fell behind 5-1.

The moveable feast of players kicked off on Friday in Barrie, drawing 2,300. There's a game at the John Labatt Centre on Sept. 30. Sarnia gets a double dip as the OSHL returns on Sunday.


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