MILTON KEYNES, UK – Great Britain under 18’s goalie Denis Bell has hit the headlines this season in his breakout senior season in the National Ice Hockey League South. Pro Hockey News speaks to the teenager who has seen more rubber than any other tender in the league.
In 2001 Heather Bell made a decision that would change the course of her life as she took her four year old son Denis skating at Rom Valley Way in Romford.
Like most children of that age, curiosity took hold of the wide eyed Bell, and after spotting a poster advertising the then English Premier League side Romford Raiders, it was only days later that they were sat amongst the blue and gold army lapping up the delights of the game of hockey.
“The following week I was on the beginner’s course” explained Bell.
“After completing the course and buying all the players kit, Chris Douglas (the Raiders goalie at the time) attended a training session and asked who’d like to be a goalie”
“I said me, he fired some pucks at me and said I was mad enough to be one, as I wasn’t scared of the puck”
And so began the journey of junior hockey, a senior breakthrough at only 16 years of age and then that eventual international recognition that will see Bell ice in the IIHF World Championships Division 2A at Dumfries next week.
The foundation of Bell’s success came thanks to Douglas, his father Erskine and Alan Blyth who were all heavily involved in Romford’s junior set up over the years at different stages.
Ironically it was a move to local junior rivals Chelmsford that sparked attention in the youngster as he ended the 2012/13 season with an incredible 95+% save average with their under 16 side and also represented the under 18’s with similar statistics.
This form attracted the attention of Haringey Racers Coach Simon Kears who showed immense faith in the teenager to sign him as starting goalie for the newly re-formed Racers in NIHL 2 last summer.
“I felt very honoured to be playing for the Racers especially at Alexandra Palace” admitted Bell. “It’s such an amazing venue to start your senior career”
“It was a big step up from the under 16’s to play my first senior game especially as I hadn’t played a full 3 x 20 mins game by then”
“The Racers had a couple of challenge games against Streatham and Bracknell from NIHL 1, before my debut game which helped calm my nerves”
“However I was playing my old club and they knew me well. Simon Kears and Dave Richards both believed in me to do my job, which also helped settle the nerves”
Haringey beat Chelmsford 6-1 in that league opener in which Bell excelled turning away 22 of 23 shots and only conceding a powerplay goal.
Good early season form, and perhaps the experience of playing well in the pre-season games against opposition from the league above, gave Bell the confidence to grab an early opportunity to test himself in the higher standard NIHL1.
“An opportunity to play on a two way contract with Milton Keynes Thunder came up at the end of September” said Bell.
“Simon (Kears) saw this as a development to improve my game. I decided to move to NIHL 1 full time when Thunder manager Dave Fairhurst, asked me to be the number one goalie as the quality of shots challenged me more to be honest”
“I saw how this would eventually improve me as a goalie and take me to the next level”
Whilst the Thunder were certainly in the league above the Racers, the team were struggling with two defeats in their opening two games and worse was to come.
Thirty one consecutive games without a win awaited Bell from the first moment he pulled on a Thunder jersey as the inexperienced and short benched outfit were dealt a harsh lesson by the other teams in the league.
In almost every game Bell was highlighted as a shining light, a goalie single handedly keeping his team competitive in games they would otherwise have been blown away.
Overall he has faced over 60 shots per game with a grand total of 1468 in only 25 appearances. Considering he still manages to maintain just under a 90% save average, it is an impressive statistic for any goalie.
“It has definitely been a very tough season losing all those games” admitted Bell who at 16 is the leagues youngest starting goalie.
“However, when I had just moved into the under 14 age group, when Romford were going through a tough time, we didn’t have an under 16 team and I had to step up with all the u14’s”
“I faced a season just like this one and I think that taught me a great deal as a goalie. Winning is great, but as a goalie you need to face shots to improve”
“I have improved not only physically but mentally this season as a result of the volume of shots I have faced”
Bell and his Thunder team mates finally got their reward for their commitment and persistence over the season with two victories in the latter stages of the campaign, largely thanks again to the man between the pipes.
“It was a relief to get the two wins over Bracknell” said Bell, who faced 122 shots over the two games conceding only twice.
“As a team we have worked so hard and on a number of occasions we have put the opposition under pressure, but never pulled it off. It was a great feeling and to see how happy all the boys were made it worthwhile”
Bell will not be icing for the Thunder in their final three fixtures of the season as he concentrates on international duty for Great Britain. The tournament in Scotland will see GB take on Romania, Croatia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Korea over seven days.
“I’m so proud I’ve been given this opportunity” said Bell.
“This was a goal I’d set myself when I first played for England. My aim is to play at the highest possible level I can and I would like to thank everyone who has been part of my journey to get here”
Rom Valley Way ice rink may no longer be in operation, but in Bell and many others who learnt their trade in its shabby confines, the legacy continues.
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