No matter how great you think your summer vacation was, it doesn’t even begin to approach Steelhead defenseman Zach Bell’s once-in-a-lifetime trip ‘Down Under’.
For three weeks this off season, Bell toured Australia as part of a hockey exhibition known as the Wayne Gretzky Hockey Classic. Bell, along with other professional hockey players that composed one American and one Canadian team, toured five cities in Australia to give Australians a front row seat to North American talent while also raising money for a good cause, the StopConcussions Foundation.
It was an unexpected opportunity for Bell, but it didn’t take him long to make up his mind.
“Dave Broll with the Syracuse Crunch has been a buddy of mine since we were kids, playing against each other since we were nine years old,” said Bell, who will be returning for a second season with the Steelheads this October.
“He messaged me and said ‘I need a roommate, we’re going to Australia’. As soon as I learned all the information I hopped right on board. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity and at first it seemed almost too good to be true. It was one of the best trips of my life.”
There was some NHL talent on the rosters as well, including goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Scott Darling, former New Jersey Devils captain Bryce Salvador, and 2016 NHL All-Star MVP John Scott.
Aside from playing in front of a packed house every night, with each game drawing between 10,000 and 12,000 people according to Bell, there was another aspect of the trip that was surreal for the Canadian defenseman. If the event is named after The Great One…
“One of the cool things about it was that Wayne actually came out and was there for a gala event in Sydney,” said Bell. “I thanked him for everything he’s done for the game. I got to shake his hand and get a picture with him, and that was enough for me. Just to meet him was enough for me.”
The tour was an opportunity not only to raise money and awareness for head injuries in sports, but also to grow the game of hockey. Some of the fans in attendance were familiar with the game, but it was clear to Bell that for many in the stands it was a completely new experience.
“It was pretty interesting. A lot of the fans had been to the event in the past so they had an idea, but for a lot of others it was their first time ever seeing ice before, let alone seeing a hockey game,” said Bell. “While the game was going on they were explaining the rules of the game- penalties, offsides, icing.”
While some of the rules may have been a bit fuzzy for the locals, they were certainly aware of the physical aspects of the game.
“Aussies love the rough stuff,” laughed Bell. “If you’ve seen a game of rugby or Aussie rules football, it’s pretty chaotic.”
Fans might have been hoping to see Bell drop the gloves, but that was not going to happen in a friendly showcase during the offseason. Bell said they gave the fans a show and hit the boards a bit for effect, but the games were nonetheless very competitive.
“Hockey players are competitive by nature, so nobody really wanted to lose,” he said. “Especially when it’s Canada against the US!”
Bell didn’t spend all of his time in Australia on the ice, saying he enjoyed the beach towns along the Gold Coast the most. And you can’t leave Australia without getting in touch with the wildlife.
“We went to a kangaroo sanctuary and the kangaroos were eating right out of my hand. That was probably the second-coolest thing I did.”
The coolest thing he did, besides meeting Wayne Gretzky? It’s probably not what Steelheads would imagine for the man who makes his living banging bodies on the Steelhead blue line.
“Honestly, the coolest thing was when we went to a little zoo and I got to hold a koala. They’re just the cutest little things. They don’t move, they’re so lazy and just want to sleep all the time.”
Bell is back home in Toronto now, working at a hockey camp with a player he met on tour. He’s only a few weeks away from playing games that count in the standings once again and as part of a defense corps that includes names like Dodero, Baldwin, and Faust. He’s ready to get to work.
“You can’t beat Boise, man. It’s a really cool place and it’s something different,” said Bell, who joined the Steelheads midseason last year. “Everyone had told me that before and I couldn’t really comprehend it. Then I went there and started playing there and I really enjoyed it, and I wanted another taste of it.”
“In Idaho I found that they really took pride in everyone getting better. Obviously every coach wants their players to get to the next level, but there was something different in Idaho. It was something about the atmosphere and the group and I really want to be a part of something like that.”