Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell was reinstated Tuesday by the NHL. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Forward Mark Bell is a step closer to beginning life as a Toronto Maple Leaf after being released Tuesday from Stage 2 of the National Hockey League's substance abuse program.

But the former San Jose Shark will first have to serve a 15-game suspension.

That was the punishment handed down by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after Bell pleaded no contest on Aug. 15 to drunk driving and hit-and-run charges. The charges stemmed from a Sept. 1, 2006, accident when he was a member of the Sharks.

Bell, who is due to serve six months in a California county jail at the end of the season, is eligible to return to action Nov. 6 against the visiting Ottawa Senators, who open the 2007-08 season in Toronto on Wednesday.

The 27-year-old native of St. Paul's, Ont., has said he hasn't had a drink since the incident.

Bell was arrested after his car rear-ended a pickup truck in an early morning accident in Milpitas, Calif., a town in the San Jose foothills. The driver of the truck received head injuries and cuts.

Toronto acquired Bell and goaltender Vesa Toskala from the Sharks on June 22 for first, second- and fourth-round draft picks.

Bell posted 11 goals and 21 points in 71 games for San Jose last season and has 83 goals and 172 points in 410 career NHL regular-season games with Chicago and the Sharks.

The former junior standout with the Ottawa 67's was selected by the Blackhawks with the eighth overall pick in the 1998 NHL entry draft.

With files from the Canadian Press