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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 21, 2020
While Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear didn’t make the final three for the Calder trophy, he did get some love in voting for NHL rookie of the year.
It’s a testament to how far he’s come in a very short time to become a top-four blueliner.
He was thrown into the deep end early and often, with no life jacket.
And he did swimmingly.
Now having to play against Chicago’s Patrick Kane a fair bit in the qualification round best-of-five series might be a big gulp, since Kane has averaged two points a night against Oilers in the last 25 games. But Bear, who turned 23 on June 26, and partner Darnell Nurse, 25, have been a staple of consistency for coach Dave Tippett.
Nurse averaged over 23 minutes a game and Bear almost 22, which is the same as the flashier Cale Makar in Colorado and Quinn Hughes in Vancouver. One of those two is winning the Calder. Only one other NHL rookie defenceman, ex-Oilers draftee John Marino, had more than 20 minutes a night, in Pittsburgh.
“Ethan’s been a shining star for us,” said Nurse, who played 69 games his first full NHL season in 2015-16 as 20-year-old, two fewer than Bear this year, and got his feet wet quickly too.
“I love the way he’s out there looking to learn, finding ways to make his game better. That’s what’s made him so good this year, he’s hungry to improve.”
Tippett was drawn to Bear from the first day of camp.
“You could see a guy who was very enthusiastic to play and that catches your eye right away,” said Tippett. “Then you start noticing as a coach what he’s doing. He was quick, he moved it quick, he thought the game well.
“And when (Adam) Larsson got nicked up early, we put more pressure on Ethan than we would normally and he handled it very well. Those early challenges where we were down one of our top defencemen, he stepped up, took a lot of those minutes.”
Tippett’s trust grew. If Bear made mistakes, he kept shoving him back out.
He only had five games where he was worse than a minus-1 player.
“The sign of maturity in a player is how he reacts after a mistake, even the best defencemen in this league make them, but Ethan didn’t let those things affect him. That’s when you know a player has arrived. He played against top players and the maturity allowed him to get past any jitters,” said Tippett.
The biggest eye-opener for Tippett was how his big guns accepted and relished Bear’s work.
“When you have people like Connor (McDavid) and Leon (Draisaitl), your top players wanting to be on the ice with you, that shows Ethan is doing some really strong things,” said Tippett.
The storyline last fall was Bear was dedicating himself to being a solid pro, getting into the proper shape, eating right, thinking right. He followed through and he’s become part of the Oilers core.
He might not get a long-term deal for big dough when the season ends because of salary-cap concerns here and everywhere in the NHL, but eventually he’ll get a six-year contract.
“The biggest thing for me was my focus. I had a plan, I wanted to show up early, get into the gym and do my proper warmup, then get onto the ice. Watch video with Jimmy (Playfair, associate coach). It was a long year but I wanted to stay consistent. I didn’t want to get comfortable,” said Bear, who finished with 21 points, and over the last 30 games never played under 20 minutes from New Year’s Eve to March 11.
Bear didn’t hibernate during the NHL pause, either.
“I have the same mindset now as I did,” the product of Ochapowace, Sask., said of last year’s Oilers training camp. “I still figure I have to prove myself every day. I was very fortunate to have ice and a good training program back home during the break.”
The First Nations’ athlete started the Ethan Bear Hockey Skills camp in his hometown in 2017.
“I worked on something new every day, got some stuff from D coach Jimmy,” Bear said.
As an indigenous youngster, Bear followed the racial unrest in the U.S. and the Black Lives Matter movement after the George Floyd murder in Minnesota.
“I try to read as much as I can and educate myself but I don’t say too much because I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” said Bear. “But I try and support this is a much as I can. It was awesome to see. Everybody’s equal and deserves a chance in this world.”
Bear found racism in the Western Hockey League where he played four years in Seattle. It wasn’t rampant but it was there. He knows he has a role as an NHL player now to stand up and make a change, and he plans on doing it.
“Absolutely. When I feel the time’s right, I’ll use my voice,” he said. “But in junior, I didn’t face a lot of it. I heard some comments from guys, but at the same time they weren’t educated. They didn’t know what they were doing until you told them, ‘You can’t say that, you shouldn’t say that,’ and they would get scared. You tell them what they did was wrong and they don’t do it again.”
On Twitter: @NHLbyMatty
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