By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
One month. That’s it — the longest amount of time that Everblades forward Vince Bellissimo has gone without playing hockey, ever since he learned the game as a little boy growing up in Toronto.
He never suffered a serious injury until this past January, when a nasty ankle sprain kept him off the ice for 30 days and cost the Blades their top goal scorer for 16 games. The time away from the sport he loves would prove crucial for Bellissimo, and for the Blades.
Before his ankle healed enough to start physical therapy, Bellissimo spent three weeks lying on his back — feet up — head down. For a hockey player: purgatory.
His teammates left for a string of road games, and Bellissimo was left at the apartment complex in Fort Myers all by himself. He and his remote, that is. A few days of ESPN, MTV and the Food Network; and Bellissimo’s mind started to wander. He had plenty of time to think — to wonder why his game had seemed to falter, even before his injury.
He had 11 goals in 28 games. Not too shabby, but not where he knew he could be. Coach Gerry Fleming had been riding him all season, telling him he had to learn to play without the puck, to play both ways. Fleming had even sat Bellissimo for a game to drive home the message.
Remote in hand, hockey on his mind — lying on that couch — Bellissimo made a commitment to himself and his team. When he returned from his injury, he’d be better. He’d come out on fire, taking Fleming’s suggestions to heart and slamming that puck to the back of the net just as he knew he could.
It has been almost four months since Bellissimo made that promise, hobbled as he was. Today, it’s clear he that he has followed through.
Going into Tuesday night’s game one of the American Conference finals against the Dayton (Ohio) Bombers at Germain Arena, Bellissimo has been, unequivocally, Florida’s top offensive threat. After finishing the regular season tied with Reggie Berg and Dustin Johner for the team lead in goals with 29, Bellissimo has torn through the playoffs with a passion, scoring seven goals in nine games. Next closest on the team are four players tied with three goals apiece.
Bellissimo scored six goals in the Blades’ first five games against Texas in the South Division Finals.
“(Vince) is definitely an offensive force,” Johner said. “He really took control of that series for us.”
Bellissimo’s scoring has been all-the-more important during these playoffs, as Berg has played just two games due to an undisclosed injury. Berg’s last game was April 27, when the Blades were shorthanded due to injuries and call-ups to the American Hockey League. According to Fleming, Berg could barely walk after that game.
“You know, Vince has always been a leader,” Fleming said of the second-year pro. “He makes other guys better.”
Those are some big shoes to fill for a 24-year-old, especially as this is just Bellissimo’s first full year with the Everblades. A Carolina Hurricanes prospect, he played 47 games last season with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters and just 19 with the Blades.
His contract with the Hurricanes is up July 1, and Fleming said he’s certain Bellissimo’s improvements during this season will draw attention from scouts. After all, Bellissimo didn’t just start scoring more goals, according to Fleming.
“Vince has always had great talent with the puck,” Fleming said after practice on Sunday. “His improvement has been playing without the puck, playing both ways. He’s added a whole other dimension to his game.”
“Psychologically, this season and these coaches have helped me a lot,” Bellissimo said. “When I got sat out a game earlier this year … that was a real eye-opener.”
Development and growth can be tough to come by, especially as a young adult and especially under the microscope of the Everblades and their diehard fans, for whom Bellissimo is Southwest Florida’s Jaromir Jagr.
Still, it seems Bellissimo has managed to grow and develop on, and off, the ice. He said his time with the Blades is the most fun he’s ever had on a hockey team — and this comes from a guy who has spent his life in arenas.
“Getting together with these 20 guys and working towards a common goal … it’s been pretty amazing … it feels like we’re really building something special here,” Bellissimo said after practice, adding that he’s not concerned right now about his NHL contract.
A trip to the Kelly Cup Finals, which the Blades could take the first step toward on Tuesday night against Dayton, would likely bring more attention from NHL teams to Bellissimo and his teammates. For now, though, Bellissimo will just try to keep doing what he’s been doing ever since those dire days on the couch.
“I’m a different player now,” he said. “I realized I needed to take it to another level.”