When Bell left a meeting with Gary Bettman in New York on Monday the last thing he thought the NHL commissioner would do is add a 15-game suspension to the punishment the Toronto Maple Leafs forward is already facing for his drunk driving and hit-and-run conviction.
“Yeah I think the length of the suspension was a surprise,” Bell told a throng of media at Air Canada Centre in Toronto hours after the announcement Wednesday. “I haven’t been in contact with the league until about 48 hours ago, but I respect the decision the commissioner made and I look forward to moving on in a positive manner – as I have been for the last year.”
The NHL Players’ Association went a step further. It is outraged with Bettman’s decision.
“The NHLPA sees no basis for the excessive suspension Gary Bettman has imposed upon Mark Bell,” NHLPA associate counsel Ian Penny said in a statement. “Mark has fully accepted the serious consequences of his actions. He faces incarceration at the conclusion of the season and has already been suspended without pay as a result of his placement in stage two of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health program.
“There is no legitimate purpose served by adding a substantial league disciplinary suspension to the severe sanctions that have already been imposed. We are currently reviewing all of our legal options with respect to this matter.”
Among the options available is the possibility of filing a grievance with the league.
But Bell, according to sources, was facing an even longer suspension before Bettman decided 15 games was enough given how well the player has responded in treatment for more than a year.
The 27-year-old was suspended without pay for conduct “dishonourable, prejudicial to or against the welfare of the league or the game of hockey,” the league said in a statement.
“Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, and with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility for exemplary conduct off the ice as well as on it,” Bettman said in a statement. Mark Bell will serve jail time following the 2007-08 season after pleading to felony and misdemeanour charges stemming from an alcohol-related automobile accident that caused an injury. He also left the scene of the accident. Such conduct is a violation of our covenant with our fans, and to the game, and is prejudicial to the welfare of the League.
“However, over the past year, Mark has made extraordinary strides in his rehabilitation. This positive progress was a material factor in reducing what could have been a lengthier suspension. The NHL supports Mark’s commitment to learning from his past mistakes and his efforts to move his life forward in a positive direction.”
The Leafs, like Bell, didn’t see it coming.
“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting the degree of severity,” said GM John Ferguson. “I certainly have a great deal of respect for the commissioner’s position – a position to dole out that kind of authority and discipline. But I thought it was not what we expected.”
Added Leafs head coach Paul Maurice: “He certainly hasn’t had a light sentence in any department. There’s no leniency here.”
Bell pleaded no contest to his criminal charges last month after being arrested last September in California. He is due to serve six months in a California county jail at the end of the 2007-08 NHL season.
Bell, a former first-round draft pick who is now a checking forward, has said he hasn’t had a drink since the incident.
The 15-game suspension will begin once he’s cleared to return by the two doctors who run the substance abuse program jointly run by the league and NHLPA. Bell was suspended indefinitely Sept. 4 and is currently in stage two of the program.
Bell was arrested after his car rear-ended a pickup truck in an early morning accident in Milpitas, Calif., a town in the San Jose foothills. The 40-year-old driver of the truck received head injuries and cuts.
The Maple Leafs acquired Bell in June along with goaltender Vesa Toskala in a trade with the San Jose Sharks.
“Sometimes in life mistakes happen and it’s about how you handle getting back and doing the right things and Mark has been great,” said Leafs veteran forward Darcy Tucker. “We’re going to stand by him 100 per cent. We’re looking forward to having him back in our lineup.”
Bell will still be allowed to practice with the team during the suspension.
“It’s important that he keeps his spirits up, that he’s positive around the room and brings some energy to practice,” said Maurice. “Certainly he’ll be in the best shape of his career by the time he comes back to play.”
That’s exactly what Bell plans to do.
“I’m going to continue to get in the best shape of my life,” he said. “I’m not just going to sit around. This is time that I will use to become a better hockey player. I want to show all Maple Leaf fans and the whole league what kind of player that I am.”