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Long Read: Ethan Bear’s Journey To The NHL

Ethan Bear was easily the most pleasant, and unexpected surprise for the Edmonton Oilers this season. Not only did he make the opening night roster, he flourished and became a top-four defenceman after Adam Larsson was injured on opening night.

His poise with the puck and ability to make well-placed, deft passes with regularity made him an instant fan favourite, but his maturation wasn’t limited to his on-ice game. Bear became a star this season, because of how he matured off the ice. Bear played 18 NHL games in 2018, but he spent all of last season in the American Hockey League, before exploding this season and playing 21:58/game, the most among the Oilers right-shot defenders.

How did it happen?

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Many things led Bear to the NHL, and it all began at home.

“I was five years old,” Bear said via the phone when I asked when he first played hockey. “I started in Ochapowace and I played here until I was 14, and then I played at Pursuit of Excellence in Kelowna.”

Hockey was in his blood.

“A lot of my grandparents played hockey,” said Bear. And my older brother (Everett) played junior in Manitoba and went to the University of Manitoba. It started with my grandparents. They didn’t have cars back then so they would walk five hours with their hockey bags to town, which is now about a 10-15 minute drive, so the passion started then, and I’m carrying it on.”

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He is extremely proud of his Indigenous heritage. They respect and appreciate their elders, and whenever I’ve asked Bear about his family or where he grew up, he beams with pride.

This past January the Oilers had an extended break as their bye week extended in the All-Star break. Many players headed off to warm vacations, but Bear went home. “I’m going to play shinny with my family and friends and just hang out with them. I’m so excited. I haven’t been back home in January in many years,” he said earlier this year.

Despite his NHL success, Bear is still quite grounded and credits his childhood for his poise and patience with the puck. He learned his puck skills at the Ochapowace rink with family and friends.

“There is about 600 living on the reserve now and more live off of it as there aren’t enough jobs,” explained Bear. “The rink is right beside the school. Growing up, after school I would walk to the store, grab a bite to eat, then go to the rink. It was always open for the kids. Whenever there wasn’t games or practices it was open for public skating. Sticks in the middle and you’d play.

“There wasn’t much to do at night, so we’d play there every night and a big part of why I’m here (NHL) is we’d play all the time. The rink manager was always there, and when we showed up, he’d open the doors, flood the ice and we’d go play. If there was a practice or a game, then we would all stay at the rink, play ball tag, or run around or something, and once it (game/practice) was over, we’d go back out on the ice,” Bear said.

He is adamant those shinny games made him the player he is now.

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“You had to be good or you were just a pylon out there,” laughed Bear. “You learned from the older kids and the cool plays they would make. There were guys who were slick with the puck and make those five-foot passes through the triangle (stick and feet), and I picked up on that and it was where I learned to make the short, quick passes.”

Many kids in Saskatchewan are Oilers are Flames fans, but Bear’s heroes were those he could relate to.

“Being a First Nation kid: Carey Price, Jordin Tootoo, Jonathon Cheechoo… I followed and cheered for them. Growing up there wasn’t a lot of TV, unless it was Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos. I would honestly watch my brother play and even our Senior team (in Ochapowace). I thought that was the best. When I retire, I can’t wait to come back here and play for our team. The main NHL teams I cheered for were Montreal, Nashville and San Jose because of those guys, but I didn’t have a favourite team.

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LEAVING HOME…

Mar 9, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Las Vegas Golden Knights center Nicolas Roy (10) shoots the puck against Edmonton Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen (19) during the third period at Rogers Place. Golden Knights won the game 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

Bear was 14 years young when he had to leave home to chase his hockey dream. Many kids leave home, but usually not until they are 16. Moving away at 14 is a challenge, and his parents were very supportive and encouraging.

“They made it seem pretty easy,” said Bear. “They weren’t too worried. I had a great family who let me stay with them for free. It wasn’t too hard, but leaving home and not being with your family was challenging at times. Once I got used to it, I just realized I was moving towards bigger things and I was doing the right thing to give me the best chance. At the same time, I was thinking if this works for me, there will be other kids down the line who choose the same path and maybe I can inspire them and be a healthy influence.”

Throughout our conversation, Bear connects much of his path to home. Going from a reserve to the NHL is very rare, and as Bear looked up to Price, Cheechoo and Tootoo, today’s young kids will watch Bear. Every Oilers game I see numerous Indigenous people proudly wearing Bear’s #74 jersey. The connection is real.

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After one season at the Pursuit of Excellence in BC, Bear returned closer to home playing Midget AAA with the Yorkton Harvest. He was 15.

“I grew a lot. It was a pretty rough league, physicality wise,” said Bear. “I was coached by Jeff Odgers (former NHLer) and he made me mature and showed me how I had to take the game seriously. I learned how to work out properly.”

After one season he was on the move again, this time to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. He produced 19 points as a 16-year-old, then 38 points in his draft year and the Oilers drafted him 124th overall.

The next two seasons he became a star in the WHL. He produced 65 points in 2016 and the Thunderbirds lost in the WHL Final, and he followed that up with a 70-point campaign and was named WHL defenceman of the year and Seattle won the WHL championship.

What did he learn in years one and two to become such an offensive threat in his final two WHL seasons?

“Experience helped,” said Bear. “I learned how guys played and slowly figured out things. I gained confidence and I had a lot of time to work on my game. I remember a Paul Coffey quote, ‘Each shift you have to prove yourself. You can get humbled every shift and it is about adapting and growing.’ And that is how I’ve always tried to look at it. I just focused on trying to get better. It is a competitive world and if you want to make it you have to keep growing.”

GROWING AS A PRO…

Oct 18, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Ethan Bear (74) celebrates his second period goal against the Detroit Red Wings at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Bear finished his junior career at the Memorial Cup and turned pro in the fall of 2017. He played 37 games with Bakersfield, before getting recalled to the Oilers late in the season. He played 17 games for the Oilers and went into the summer feeling pretty good about himself.

However, he hadn’t yet learned how to be a professional. He thought he’d come to training camp in the fall of 2018 and make the Oilers. It didn’t happen. He had a subpar training camp and preseason and was reassigned to the AHL.

He was injured in the second game of the season and missed three weeks. He struggled. He didn’t score a goal in his first 28 games and didn’t feel right physically. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint the issue.

“Around January I was getting hurt so much,” said Bear. “I hurt both my shoulders, I had an inflammation in the back of my knee. It was constant. I got hurt early in the year and it felt like I couldn’t bounce back fast enough. I was working out hard in the gym, but when I played I was run down. Pretty much broken and I would get hurt again. I wasn’t healthy enough. I wasn’t strong enough.”

He read some books and realized his issue was food. He wasn’t fueling his body properly.

“I realized it was a problem, asked for help, and I started taking care of my body better and putting the right things in my body; basically feeling like I was healing every day,” explained Bear. “And that is the approach I take now. Being honest with myself about what I’m putting in, food or in the gym.

“I read about other athletes and what they did: Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Shannon Sharpe and basically tried to be like them. I kind of surprised myself. It makes it (playing) a lot more fun, not feeling like you are behind. Now I can play, play with confidence and not worry about if I’m out of shape or not strong enough.”

I noticed he said healing when describing his resurgence. Another strong connection to his ancestry. Treating his body with respect and holding himself accountable made an instant improvement.

In his next seven games he had four two-point performances and scored two goals. He finished with 20 points in his final 24 games. He felt better in the gym and on the ice.

Who helped him figure out what food to eat?

“It was our strength coach Chad Drummond,” said Bear. “I would tell him what I ate, as honest I could be. We’d talk about my weight and what I was eating. He’d tell me to cut this out and eat that. I cut out carbs and started eating more veggies.

“It got to a point where I knew and understood my body and which foods worked and which ones didn’t.

“I try to go gluten-free. If it is rice, then rice pasta. I eat veggie omelet and oatmeal in the morning, or a bowl of fruit. A lot of vegetables and high protein and small amount of carbs. Just enough to fuel my body.”

What would he eat on a cheat day?

“If I have a cheat day, then it will be Fettucine Alfredo. But it isn’t very often. If I eat something like that it sticks to me the next day. However, chocolate covered almonds are hard to deny (laughs).

“It (eating healthy) becomes addictive. I feel great when I eat clean and I have a lot of energy. I wish I had figured this out a long time ago.”

PROVEN PUCK MOVER…

Oct 24, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Ethan Bear (74) and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin (8) battle for position during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Bear had an excellent rookie season for the Oilers. He, along with Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl, were the only players to skate in all 71 games. He averaged almost 22 minutes per game, and what stood out most was Bear’s ability to move the puck quickly, especially up the middle of the ice to the forwards.

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His years of playing shinny in Ochapawace showed up regularly in the NHL. Passing the puck is one part of his puck moving ability, but Bear explained how those high-danger passes look so effortless.

“Watching other players and knowing where they are and knowing the system well enough to know they should be there is key,” said Bear. “I try to put myself in a good spot to grab the puck and not get crushed, but you think of where everyone else is going to be. And when the guy (forechecker) is coming at you, you don’t look at him, you look past him to see where your teammates are. I’m always trying to figure out where guys want the puck. I’m aware of who I’m on with, whether they are lefties or righties, and where I should put the puck.”

Bear’s preparation and awareness allowed him to play 20 minutes a night, and often he looked like a veteran. His focus on staying in the moment and not thinking about his increased role, and importance to the team, helped him.

“I don’t think it (playing 20 minutes) ever crossed my mind,” Bear said. “It was just about being ready for the next shift. I was just taking it day-by-day and not getting too comfortable. Tomorrow in practice I have to do this and be ready for the next game. I watched a lot of video with Jimmy (assistant coach Jim Playfair) and if something bad happened, he’d say don’t worry about it, and if something good happened, it would be the same. I kept the same attitude all year and I think it helped me stay focused.”

Bear played almost exclusively with Nurse and the veteran helped him a lot.

“Doc (Nurse) is a good player,” said Bear. “He is a real high-energy guy, he’s pretty smart and he’s solid defensively. If I didn’t make a quick enough read, he would let me know, which was great, but usually he just let me play. Instead of trying to coach me and worry about me. He just let me play.”

But Nurse’s biggest contribution to Bear’s success came off the ice.

“The way he prepared himself. How hyped he would get up for games in the weight room. He was a beast. I tried to bring the same work ethic as him,” explained Bear.

Nurse’s work ethic and energy on and off the ice made Bear feel much more comfortable.

FAN FAVOURITE…

Bear’s passing and overall play made him a fan favourite early in the season, but that multiplied ten-fold when he fought Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk on February 1st.

“Those games get pretty intense, they were something else,” said Bear. “That game, the guys couldn’t stop scoring and then in the heat of the moment things went down like they did (fighting Tkachuk). I’m not used to being a part of games like that and it was pretty fun.”

His tilt coincided with Mike Smith fighting Cam Talbot and he explained the atmosphere in the room.

“I remember walking in the room after and Smitty (Mike Smith) was fired up. I couldn’t believe what happened and I was fired up. I couldn’t sleep that night, and then we had our Super Bowl party a few days after and Smitty was still fired up (laughs). It was so fun to be around the guys in that type of atmosphere. It brought our team together,” he said.

SEASON IN LIMBO…

Bear, like every NHL player and fan, would love nothing more than to resume the season and get a taste of NHL playoffs for the first time. But he understands the severity of the Covid situation. We spoke from his home in Ochapawace, and he has access to a fantastic training facility.

“We have one of the nicest rinks in Saskatchewan.” said Bear. “WHL and University teams have had preseason games here. We have a really nice gym upstairs in the rink and that is where I’ve been doing all my workouts. I have the same routine I did last summer. I have everything I need here and I can get on the ice, which is a plus.”

When, or if, the season resumes, Bear will be ready. He’s grown a lot in the past 15 months and is excited to see how much more he can improve. He wants personal success, but he is quite serious about the responsibility of being a role model for Indigenous kids.

“It is important,” said Bear. “It is something that comes with being an NHL player. I want to lead by example by working hard every day and not being satisfied.”

He is very open to those who reach out to him.

“I try to give information about moving away, or playing for another team. I try to do my best to respond and give some kind of education or advice to help them, as maybe when I was young and too afraid to ask someone I looked up to. It is definitely something I am very proud of (Indigenous heritage) and take it very seriously. I want to stay true to who I am, stay humble and work hard.”

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR