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Bear, Thunderbirds ready to compete for CHL supremacy

After winning the WHL Championship, Oilers prospect Ethan Bear and his Seattle Thunderbirds will challenge for the Memorial Cup

by Paul Gazzola /

No hand injury was going to keep Seattle Thunderbirds defenceman Ethan Bear from clutching glory.

Not even the one he sustained in Game 3 of the 2017 Western Conference Championship against the Kelowna Rockets.

"Not a chance," the rearguard said two days after lifting the Ed Chynoweth Cup above his head, its bowl firmly gripped by his recovering left hand.

Down 3-1 in Game 6 of the WHL Final against the Regina Pats and while sitting on the bench late in the third period, there wasn't an ounce of doubt in Bear's mind regarding his team's capability.

"I remember looking down the bench and on the ice, I see Barzy (Mathew Barzal) and he's like, 'Let's go, let's get one here,'" said Bear. "Nobody was in panic or shock, we just kept going. I think that's what made it really amazing for all of us, we knew that together we could do it."

To make the victory even more amazing was the site of the win. The squad took the title in the province of Saskatchewan, where many Thunderbird players are from. Bear himself had throngs of family, friends and fans in attendance since he is from Ochapowace, SK, a close community.

"They were all just as happy as I was and they were celebrating just as hard because this doesn't come around too often," said Bear. "To me, they're all family."

Tweet from @SeattleTbirds: Bear showing trophy to family and friends #WinTheCup

The WHL Championship came after a season filled with challenges. As if Bear's hand injury wasn't enough, the Thunderbirds were bitten by the injury bug throughout the year as they sought to return to the WHL summit like they did in 2016 when they lost in the WHL Finals to the Brandon Wheat Kings. 

"It was a long run," said Bear, ending the post-season with six goals and 26 points in 17 games - good for fourth League-wide. "We went through a lot to make it this far; through injuries and a lot of adversity by missing guys at a lot of key times."

Early in the season, the WHL Defenceman of the Year displayed the type of leader he is, having a healthy hand in upgrading the play of his long-time friend and defence partner Turner Ottenbreit. Ottenbreit ended a career year with seven goals and 32 points in 71 regular season games. 

As the season progressed and Seattle maintained their elite status, Bear flashed his offence and powered the charge for the Thunderbirds while many of his teammates, including some members of the veteran nucleus - Barzal, Scott Eansor, Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp - were sidelined. 

Bear racked up 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points in 67 games during the regular season, providing the jolt his club needed while the key cogs couldn't play.

"We knew how hard it was losing in last year's Final. That made us step it up a bit and push ourselves a little harder to do whatever it takes to win.

"I think we did that."

An already long season is about to get longer. Bear and the Thunderbirds are in Windsor, ON, for the Memorial Cup, set to compete in a circuit that features the host Windsor Spitfires (OHL), Erie Otters (OHL champions) and Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL champions). Every team competing boasts a strong lineup but there is no clear-cut favourite.

"We all worked hard to get here," said Bear. "It's going to be a lot of fun and playing teams who you never played before is always really exciting."

Like he has been all year, Bear will be a driver for his club from the back end. And just like all year, he's reducing the event to the great opportunity it is.

"Everyone goes and just plays hockey," he said. "You have fun playing hockey and everyone's a champion there, so you're just playing for that next trophy."

And there's not a chance he won't enjoy it.

"It'll be really competitive but at the same time a lot of fun."

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