The smile on Nick Bell’s face more than suggested he’s finally ready to roll.
“Absolutely, I’m excited,” a smiling Bell said Thursday, in reference to his pending return to the Red Deer Rebels’ lineup Saturday against the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Rebels rookie has missed a whopping 34 games since suffering a severe ankle injury in October and then undergoing surgery. It’s been a long and laborious stretch for the 19-year-old defenceman.
“Yeah, it’s been difficult, very frustrating,” he said. “It’s been pretty tough watching practice, watching every game and just wishing you were out there the whole time.”
During his extensive down time, Bell would attend high school classes at Hunting Hills, attend Rebels practices as a spectator and “just basically hang out with the guys.”
After having his cast removed in mid-November, he worked on rehabilitating the ankle at Can-Pro Athletic Training Centre until close to Christmas.
“That kind of got me into shape and got me moving again,” said Bell. “Lately, I’ve being doing more ankle strengthening and spending a lot of time on the bike. Since Christmas I’ve been on the bike 45 minutes a day and that’s got me back into shape and ready to go.”
Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin sympathizes with Bell and centre Nathan Green, who’s been out since late October with a leg fracture and likely won’t return to action until early March.
“It’s tough on everybody but certainly more so on those individuals,” said Wallin. “It’s tough not to get frustrated. They’re out there watching everyone else get to play and do what they love. As as player, you’re used to being able to get after it every day and working to make yourself better. You’re used to that physical activity and when you’re laid up like that it’s as tough on you mentally as it physically.
“Then, of course, you have to get yourself back into condition, back into shape, and that’s a tough go, a process in itself. It’s just a lot to go through and it’s a big relief when a guy gets back into the lineup. You’re back into the routine and back with your teammates again.”
While recuperating, Bell accompanied the Rebels on two road trips, including the recent four-game swing through the B.C. Division.
“I think the coaches wanted me to be around the guys and getting familiar with everything about hockey again,” he said.
“That’s one of the more difficult things about being injured — you know you’re part of the team, but when you’re not going out on the ice and going to battle every night it’s tough to really feel like you’re a complete part of the group,” said Wallin. “From my experiences as a player I found that to be very difficult, but there’s no real way around it. Once you get back into the lineup I think you really start to become bonded again.”
While Bell has yet to score his first Western Hockey League goal, he has contributed eight assists in 13 games and Wallin is anxious to see the Innisfail native pick up where he left off.
“I think he was starting to adjust to the league right before he got hurt,” said the Rebels bench boss. “Until coming to our team, he had never played at a level that really pushed him.
“He’s a very talented individual, but he played midget triple A (with the Red Deer Optimist Rebels) when he was 17 and then played junior A (with the AJHL Okotoks Oilers last season).
“Stepping up to this level, he has some habits he has to break and he was starting to do that before he got injured. He was really competing defensively and taking the body. He has to continue to improve in those areas, but he certainly moves the puck very well and he sees the ice well.”
Bell has already shown that he can be a contributing member of the Red Deer power play.
“Nick has always had good offensive instincts and he’s a guy we felt coming into the season would be able to quarterback our power play,” said Wallin. “And we still think that’s going to be a part of his game when he gets back. He’s a guy who provides some offence for us from the back end and I think we missed that to a certain extent while he was out of the lineup. We’re just happy to get him back and eager to see what he can do for us over the last 25 (regular-season) games.”
Bell is uncertain as to how much time he’ll need to get himself into ‘game shape’.
“It’s kind of hard to tell exactly what level I’ll have to be at because I haven’t played for so long,” he said. “From what I’ve been told, the style of play at the beginning of the season is a lot different than it is now. I think I’ll find that it’s a lot more intense than it was at the beginning of the season.”