All Zach Bell wanted was a chance to move up a level in the hockey world. Trouble was he couldn’t be sure if anyone was going to provide a ladder.
Last spring, the 20-year-old defenceman had finished up his fourth season in the Ontario Hockey League and was anxious for a shot at the pros. But the six-foot-two, 225-pounder hadn’t been drafted by a National Hockey League club. He had attended the rookie camp of the San Jose Sharks a couple of years ago, but by the time this August rolled around, he had nothing in the way of prospects, other than to return to the OHL’s North Bay Battalion as an overage junior.
That changed when the Winnipeg Jets gave him an invitation to their rookie camp and the Penticton Future Stars tournament in British Columbia. Out of that, another offer, this time to attend the St. John’s IceCaps’ training camp on a tryout. And so on Monday, Bell found himself one of 27 players at Mile One Centre as the American Hockey League’s IceCaps held their first official workout of the 2013-14 season.
“Before I got that call from Winnipeg, I hadn’t heard from anyone else, so it had been tough summer up to that point,” said Bell. “Then, to get that call. Oh my goodness, I was so happy.
“It goes to show you have to be optimistic with hockey. Things can happen. Things can come up out of nowhere.”
That’s an attitude he’s taking into the IceCaps’ camp. There have been no promises and little in the way of clues as to what if any plans there are for him. And he’s in tough number-wise. There are already five defencemen in camp with contracts, seven if you count Ben Chiarot and Julian Melchiori, who were among five players reassigned to St. John’s by the parent Winnipeg Jets Monday afternoon. And there will be at least one, perhaps two, more blueliners sent to the IceCaps by the Jets.
“I’m just going to bust my tail, work as hard as I can and hopefully give the coaches and management a tough decision,” said Bell.
“As far as I know, (the Battalion) are holding a spot for me and I appreciate it. If I go back for my overage season, it won’t be the end of the world, but in my perfect world, I wouldn’t be going back. Four years is enough junior I think.”
While Bell is one of about a dozen players skating on Mile One ice for the first time this week, unlike the others, he is quite familiar with St. John’s. He was actually born here; his father is former NHLer Bruce Bell, who was a defenceman for the St. John’s Maple Leafs during their first season in the AHL.
He grew up in Ontario, however, and will list Brampton as his hometown, although he did regularly return to Newfoundland to visit relatives here. His mother Nikki is the daughter of Alice and Gerry Crewe, the well-known chef and instructor at the College of the North Atlantic who died almost three years ago from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Once or twice a year,” he answered when asked about the frequency of his trips to his birthplace.
“A couple of times for Christmas, but mostly in the summer, which for me, was different a lot of the time. It might be cooking, up to 40 degrees (in Toronto) and I’d often come here and need an umbrella.
“Family was always warm, though.”
He found that same sort of warmth from Newfoundland relatives in Ontario. As a teenager, he grew up in the Brampton home of his aunt and uncle Jeremy and Colleen (O’Reilly) Crewe.
“They were angels for me,” said Bell. “They gave me everything I needed and I don’t mean only things in the material sense.”
For his first three years in the OHL, Bell got to stay at home, as the Battalion franchise was located in Brampton. Then, in 2012, it relocated to North Bay.
“It was my first time with a billet family and they were great, awesome people, but it was weird not going home at the end of the day to a family that was family in the true sense,” Bell said. “I just had to look at it as a new experience, a growing experience and I think it was good for me.”
Described by both himself and IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge as “an old school player,” Bell is looking to make the most of his new experience as an IceCaps tryout.
“Keeping things simple, that’s pretty much my game,” said Bell. “I try to be a physical force back there, blocking shots, looking to make the good first pass.
“I don’t always stick out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing I think.”
He stuck out enough in rookie camp to be noticed by McCambridge.
“He’s a stay-at-home, physical, sandpaper type of defenceman, which I like,” said the IceCaps’ coach, who was very much the same type of blueliner in his playing days
“What I like even more is that his game balances out on some of the other pieces we will potentially have.
“And his off-ice personality also fits a good mix. He’s a real good kid and he’s someone who made a strong impression on me in Penticton.”
Now, it’s up to Bell to do the same thing in St. John’s.
Edited to correctly identify Brampton as former home of the Battalion