American Hockey League

‘Straightforward and honest’ Bell has Senators’ respect

📝 by Patrick Williams

David Bell had seen plenty on the job — before he even officially had the job.

Hired as the interim head coach for the Belleville Senators on Feb. 3 replacing Troy Mann, Bell and the club experienced a wild second half of the season. With the Senators trying to track down a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs, they endured never-ending changes to their lineup amid injuries and recalls to the Ottawa Senators.

Despite the upheaval, the B-Sens took their playoff bid to the final week of the regular season before finally being eliminated from contention. Bell’s work managing the club to a 14-9-3-3 mark prompted Ottawa to drop his interim tag; it also marked the next step in a long climb for the 46-year-old, who will begin his 20th year in the coaching business next season.

“I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity,” Bell said in March.

Bell came to the Ottawa organization as a Belleville assistant coach before the 2019-20 season and earned considerable praise from the NHL club’s front office for his work guiding their AHL prospects.

“David is very deserving of this promotion,” Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion said in announcing the promotion. “His transition from assistant to the interim head coaching position this past winter was seamless. We’ve witnessed good synergy between coaching staffs at the AHL and NHL levels, which continues to be vital for an organization seeking to take the next step in both leagues.”

“It was an awesome experience,” Bell said of his late-season run leading the club. “The players were bought-in right away. They were awesome with what we were trying to sell there, but there were some long, long days to get our feet underneath us to get organized during the transition, for sure.”

Ottawa assistant general manager Ryan Bowness doubles as the GM in Belleville and handles the AHL club’s day-to-day affairs. Together with Bell, they oversaw a roster that used 53 players, including 10 goaltenders.

“The team’s performance over the last two-and-a-half months of the season buoyed David’s candidacy tremendously,” Bowness said in a written statement. “The players’ individual preparation, commitment to detail, and collective determination in pursuit of a playoff spot through the last week of the season have us confident that David is the right person for this role.”

The assistant’s post that Bell had vacated also was not filled back in February, which meant that he, assistant Ben Sexton, goaltending coach Justin Peters, and video coach Frederic Lemay all pitched in to handle that work.

“Our staff is awesome,” Bell said. “I don’t even want to call them assistants. We’re in it together, and they’re always offering to take stuff off my plate and do extra.”

Bell kept his approach simple. The club largely maintained the same systems play, and he also kept his personality consistent. He had to, really, given the players streaming in and out of Belleville.

“‘Just don’t change. Don’t change you. Don’t change who you are,’” Bell recalled his players saying. “I honestly didn’t try to change my approach with players. My approach has always been straightforward and honest. If it needs to be soft, it’s soft. If it needs to be hard, it’s hard, and I was that as an assistant coach.”

Now with a full summer to prepare for what the organization hopes will be a healthier season, Bell and his players should have a smoother ride come this fall.

“They’ll get more of a taste of what makes me tick and what irritates me as far as how I think we need to play,” Bell said. “And I don’t mean systematically, but just little intangibles, whether it’s team-first things or how they hold their teammates accountable, how they hold the coaching staff accountable.

“Everybody has their own personality. As far as an identity of me and my team, the guys will pick up on it quickly. There are certain things that I stand for and certain things that I’m okay with that maybe other coaches or other systems aren’t okay with. I know that everybody talks about 200-foot players, but I also like really, really good offensive players that might have deficiencies in the [defensive] zone. Or I like really, really good defensive players that will never score a goal in their career.

“My non-negotiable is putting the team ahead of themselves. Up a goal, I need that offensive guy to be the best cheerleader he can be for the defensive guy. If we’re down a goal, that defensive guy had better be standing up and cheering on that offensive guy.

“A message I give guys is to use their instincts and their abilities. If you think you could beat a guy one-on-one as a skill guy, do it. As long as every time that you don’t succeed, you slam on the brakes and compete like crazy to get the puck back. As long as you compete, I’ll let you use your skill and instincts all night long.”

Bell plans to hold himself to that same standard.

“I need to be prepared for a team, whether it’s a pre-scout or an adjustment in a game. If I don’t make an adjustment, that’s on me and my staff. I have to own that. I have to go in the room and tell the guys, ‘Hey, I didn’t catch that.’ I think the best way to get accountability is when you’re wrong, you admit it.”

That philosophy has been shaped by nearly 30 years in high-level hockey. Bell played seven pro seasons as a tough defenseman and logged 60 AHL games between Springfield, Portland and Saint John before moving into the coaching game at age 27 in 2004. He even keeps a little book that has come with him through his eight stops as a coach. If he sees a practice drill he likes, into the book it goes. A coach handled a situation a certain way? Jot it down. Managing an intermission during a bad game? Or in a winning effort? Those are going into the book as well.

“I stole from everybody,” Bell quipped. “I stole from coaches that coached me. I continually steal from coaches I coach with, coaches I coach against.”

Bell also cites Brian Kilrea, his head coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, as one role model. One of the greatest junior coaches ever, Kilrea also won three Calder Cups playing for the Springfield Indians in the 1960’s. He is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the AHL Hall of Fame.

Said Bell, “He cares about people. He cares just as much if you scored a goal or if you got your homework done. He cares how you’re feeling, [if] everything’s good at home. He’s just a humble human being. He’s one in a million.”

Kilrea’s mentorship came before Bell had even experienced the pro game. But he had been through those seven pro seasons as a player when another long-time AHL name, Mike Stothers, gave him his first bench job as an assistant coach with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack. They later reconnected in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, where he was an assistant coach for two seasons before moving on to Belleville.

“He taught me a lot about hockey, a lot about life, just the grind,” Bell said of Stothers. “How hard you have to grind as a coach, especially to get up the ranks. You might not get a lot of accolades, but you just keep grinding and doing the right thing, and hopefully you get noticed.

“Be honest. Honest with your players, honest with yourself, and don’t get outworked. Mike instilled that in me, demanded it of me, and I still carry it today.”

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