It’s going to be years before the Edmonton Oilers know what they’re going to get from blueline prospect Ethan Bear, who took his first wobbly steps on NHL ice against the Nashville Predators at Rogers Place Thursday. It was a difficult debut to be sure, but a hockey lesson that will serve him well, a significant step down the road in a career that already has the Ochapowace First Nation beaming with pride.
Bear, 20, who was called up from the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL Tuesday, played 14:42 and ended up going minus-3 alongside Andrej Sekera in a 4-2 loss against the high-powered Predators, the best team in the Western Conference. Thursday was the textbook definition of being thrown into the deep end for the former captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds and the top defenceman in the WHL in 2016-17.
Bear looked confident with the puck, as you’d expect from a kid who had back-to-back seasons of 65 and 70 points in Seattle. That wasn’t the problem. Bear got caught in no-man’s land on the 2-1 goal by Scott Hartnell. Then, he got beat on a 50-50 puck at the Nashville blueline instead of backing off on the 2-2 goal with just 10 seconds to go in the second period. He was also on for the 4-2 goal by Austin Watson. A tough night on the scoresheet.
“It was fun, the nerves were right up there and the excitement level was too and to play a really good team like Nashville was a good experience,” said Bear, who didn’t seem at all overwhelmed before or after his first twirl in The Show. “I just need to keep my feet moving a little bit more, keep moving the puck. I felt pretty good.”
A LONG ROAD
For the most part, coach Todd McLellan liked what he saw from Bear, who had just 34 pro games under his belt with Bakersfield when he got called up. “I thought he looked confident, he moved pucks well, he zipped pucks up,” McLellan said. “The game sheet is not going to give you a true story when it comes to his game. It shows minus-3, but he was a victim of circumstance. I felt better and better about putting him on the ice as the game went on. It’s a good start for him.”
It goes without saying that making it to the NHL, even for one game, is a longshot at best for all the kids out there ankling their way around rinks right across the country. That’s no less true for Indigenous kids like Bear, from the Ochapowace Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Two dozen school kids as well as friends and family made the trip to Rogers Place to see Bear’s debut – he’s one of just six players of Indigenous descent in the NHL now.
“I am very proud,” Bear’s mother, Geraldine, told Marty Klinkenberg of the Globe and Mail. “When I heard, I wanted to yell and scream. All we have ever wanted for him is to be healthy and to achieve his dreams. That is what every parent wants for their kids. It’s very overwhelming.” The entire Globe piece by Klinkenberg is here.
Bear doesn’t even turn 21 until late June, so it makes no sense to rush him along the development curve, as the Oilers have been guilty of doing too often in recent years. What this call-up does is give the Oilers a chance to see where he’s at. More important, it’s going to give Bear a pretty good read on what it’s going to take to stick in the best league on the planet. He’ll be able to go into the off-season with eyes wide open about what it’ll take to step up his game to the point where he not only gets to The Show, but stays.
That’s not a journey many fifth-round draft picks (Bear was selected 124th overall from Seattle by the Oilers in the 2015 Entry Draft) navigate successfully. There’s a lot of people — those who made the long trip to Edmonton, many more back home and others who got their first glimpse of Bear Thursday — pulling for him.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- We’re still 10 weeks away from Hockey Helps the Homeless at the Terwilligar Recreation Centre May 11, but the response has been fantastic – no surprise there, given how people and businesses in this city step up when it matters. That includes Oilersnation, and we’ll have more on that later.Our field of men’s and women’s teams – participants play on teams with one or two pros on them — will be larger than last year, likely 20 teams. We’ve already got commitments from former pros Georges Laraque, Robyn Regehr, Matt Kassian, Scott Thornton, Dave Lumley, Chris Joseph and Rob Brown as well as country singer Gord Bamford and David Pelletier, with many more to be announced in coming weeks.If you’d like more information, want to get involved as a sponsor or participant or would like to donate to the cause, you can get more information here.
- Beginning this month, I’ll be starting a new Top 10 list. This time, it’s Top 10 Players Who Got Away. I’ve compiled my names – made up of players from 1990 and later who were traded or otherwise cut loose by the Oilers and made their marks elsewhere. If you’ve got candidates who make you cringe just thinking about them getting away, let me know.
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