Ethan Bear spoke eloquently and honestly about the moment his career changed. In between sips of his post-game drink last night, Bear outlined the events during our conversation in a mainly empty dressing room after the Oilers’ sixth victory of the season.
How did he go from struggling in the American Hockey league ten months ago to playing the fifth most minutes on the first place Edmonton Oilers?
Bear was drafted in the fifth round, 124th overall, at the 2015 NHL entry draft. It was a major accomplishment for him and his family. Bear was raised on the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan. He is deeply loyal and proud of his roots. He became an instant role model for all the children in Ochapowace, and in the summer he still runs a youth hockey camp there.
On March 1st, 2018, Bear made his NHL debut in Edmonton against the Nashville Predators. Two night later against the New York Rangers the young boy from Ochapowace Nation made his debut on Hockey Night in Canada. He picked up his first point in his fourth game and scored his first NHL goal on March 25th against the Anaheim Ducks.
Bear played 18 of the final 19 games with the Oilers and they had a respectable record of 9-7-2 in those games. Bear was excited. He’d achieved his dream of playing in the NHL. His family was proud and Bear had his own cheering section for those eleven home games. There were many #74 Bear jerseys in the crowd.
Bear went into the summer excited about the future, but last season didn’t go as planned. His recall to Edmonton in March of 2018 was partially due to his talent, but mainly due to injuries on the Oilers blueline. He came to training camp in September, 2018, hoping to make the team. It didn’t happen.
He was sent to Bakersfield, and then he got injured in the second game of the season and was out of the lineup for three weeks. He returned in early November, but he didn’t play very well. He didn’t score a goal in his first 33 games. Even though he is a defenceman, Bear expects to produce offensively. He scored in his first AHL game in 2017/2018, so going 33 games to start last year without a goal wasn’t ideal.
He was only 21 years young, but he knew he needed to do more. He was in the NHL seven months earlier and now he wasn’t playing up to his potential in the AHL. He was frustrated, but instead of making excuses he had his “wow” moment. He took control of his path.
“I’d say probably before last Christmas or mid-December was when I noticed that I wasn’t playing as well as I could,” said Bear. “And I realized most of it was about nutrition. I was like, ‘Wow, I really don’t feel as good as I should.’ And it was just a complete lifestyle change for me. I just started eating healthy and making sure that I was doing the proper work and the proper rehab I needed for my body. Then in January I could feel a big difference. Just playing-wise, I had more energy. When I would get the puck I wasn’t rushed. I just felt like I had more poise with the puck. Everything just started clicking better once I started eating healthier.”
“It wasn’t like I was fat, I was maybe eleven percent body fat, but for me losing five to six pounds made a huge difference. I didn’t really think about it growing up, but when it hit me and I started playing better, I was like, ‘Wow, I need to do this (eat properly) all of the time,” said Bear.
He took ownership of his career. And it wasn’t just a change in his eating habits. He altered his approach in every facet of his game.
“I started taking practices more seriously, and the morning skate. Knowing that as I prepared myself for those it was going to help me prepare better mentally for a game. And I noticed at practice I could get through it, have a slow practice and go unnoticed, but that just wasn’t good enough.
“I wanted to make a difference in practice, push my own pace, make crisp plays, jumping up on the rush when we do five-on-five drills, getting in on the attack. And once I started doing that I kind of started feeling it offensively. It’s just all a part of growing up,” said Bear.
In his final 20 games of the season, between January 19th to April 6th, Bear produced 6-12-18. He took his game to a new level, despite suffering another injury that forced him to miss seven games. His change in eating habits paid off, and the instant returns only increased his motivation to become better.
I’ve been on the Oilers beat for 18 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a change in a player from one year to the next like I have with Bear. Not just his play on the ice, but how he speaks and interacts with me. It is like he’s added ten years of wisdom from last September at training camp to this year. From the first day of camp he spoke like someone very confident in who he was. It was like he knew he was going to make the team, despite no one on the outside thinking that. He looked different also. His jet black hair is longer, and his face is thinner. He looked like a strong, confident young man, but with an old soul. His answers are thorough. His thoughts are deeper.
FOCUSED ON TRAINING…
Much of the pre-season focus was on Evan Bouchard, Caleb Jones and Joel Persson. I didn’t have Bear on my opening night roster. But Bear got head coach Dave Tippett’s attention with his off-ice testing results. He crushed them. His results were significantly better than previous years. Those results tell the organization a player put in the work necessary to be a regular NHL player. Good tests won’t guarantee you a spot on the team, but below average results will lead to an early re-assignment to the American League for young players.
Then, his play in preseason games matched the excellence of his tests results. It earned him a job, and now he’s taken his game to a new level.
But what we are seeing now stems back to his decision to make a major lifestyle change last December. This short interaction explains Bear’s mindset.
Gregor: You finished last season on a high and now you go to the summer and you’ve got the nutrition down pat. Did it allow you to train…harder might not be the right word…
Bear: No, that’s the right word.
Gregor: So you were able to train harder. Did you have more energy?
Bear: Oh yeah, 100%. I think in the summertime it’s easy to just relax and enjoy the summer, but I just made sure that once the season ended — we didn’t get to go as far as we’d like — but I knew once last season ended I needed to prepare for this season right away.
“Usually I would take a few weeks off and enjoy myself. Hang out with the family, go home and party a little bit because I don’t do it (party) during the season. But I just kind of cut that out of my life, cutting out alcohol was a big thing. That was actually a huge thing. Me and my girlfriend, Lenasia, made a big commitment to push all of that aside and to just keep eating clean. Basically maintain consistency. Consistency was huge.
“Watching guys like LeBron James, those real high-end athletes who just stay consistent and he hasn’t had a lot of injuries. He’s always posting his workout videos and how he’s eating. If those guys can do it and that’s what you’ve got to do to succeed, then I had to. And Shannon Sharp and Colt Brennan and all of those stories. I picked up a lot of books about training and commitment and I absorbed them. It was a game changer for me and once last season ended I just kept working hard and it just helped me to train harder. I wasn’t fatigued training. I could just feel myself getting stronger and better,” said Bear.
Some will wonder why Bear didn’t train like this in previous summers. He did train, but training to be a regular in the NHL is different than training to be an American League player. In his case, it was just maturing, becoming wiser, reading books on training and having a consistent routine.
In previous summers he would train in various spots. He went home to see his family, which was expected considering he was only 19 and 20 — still just a kid. He liked being home and around friends and family. He would train for a few weeks at home, then he’d come to Edmonton, then he’d go to Kelowna. He trained everywhere he went, but the intensity and consistency of those sessions weren’t the same.
This summer he remained in Edmonton the majority of the time and trained with Chad Drummond. Lenasia is in post-secondary in Kelowna, so they went there for a few short visits, but they remained in Edmonton most of the summer and the consistency with Drummond and his training pushed Bear to new levels of strength and conditioning.
“My off-ice changes have had a direct impact on the ice. I could just tell a big difference. I am quicker. It has allowed me to get to pucks faster and make plays. It just makes you more confident out there and you need confidence in this game. And I don’t feel like I’m out of place or out of shape. I feel up to speed when I’m making my plays,” said Bear confidently.
TOP FOUR MINUTES…
BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! pic.twitter.com/V8UuUCvSXX
— Baggedmilk – Oilers Beet writer (@jsbmbaggedmilk) October 17, 2019
Through seven games Bear is averaging 19:53/game, but he’s played over 22 minutes in three of the past four games, including a season-high 23:52 against New Jersey. He scored his first goal of the season last night and has two points in his past three games. His biggest contribution from my vantage point has been his passing ability on zone exits. He’s been excellent at using the middle of the ice on breakouts. He isn’t afraid to make tough plays in the most dangerous area of the ice.
His 19:53/game is third among rookie NHL defenceman behind highly touted prospects Cale Makar (20:03) and Quinn Hughes (20:01). Bear will have some expected rookie growing pains at times this season, but his emergence on the blueline has been the biggest surprise of the season. And with the injury to Adam Larsson, Bear’s improved play has been extremely important.
But he believes he still has a lot of room to improve.
“I’m excited to see how much I can improve with more training,” smiled Bear as he took the final sip of his post-game recovery drink. He then walked away to do a post-game stretch and workout.
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