The transformation of Ethan Bear, from fifth-round draft selection to top-four defenceman, brought newfound success to the Oilers in the '19-20 season
EDMONTON, AB - He went from pipeline prospect to full-on player; from wearing Thunderbirds threads to a Condors uniform; and from being a cub to the Ethan Bear that Oil Country has now come to know and love -- most notably for his beastly abilities on the Oilers back end.
The barefaced rookie, at the young age of 22, looked more like a grizzled vet in his first full season in the National Hockey League, becoming a major benefit to the Orange & Blue through poised play, defensive awareness and added offensive flair.
A summer spent training in Edmonton, with the amenities of Rogers Place available to him, had the blueliner best-prepared for his looming chance with the Oilers. And Bear, who got an 18-game taste of the NHL in '17-18, kicked down the door when the big break presented itself.
It was during the Oilers pre-season schedule with newly-appointed Head Coach Dave Tippett at the helm when opportunity came knocking.
"I skated up to him this morning and I said, 'Knock-knock. Opportunity awaits,'" Tippett said in September, before an exhibition match against the Winnipeg Jets.
Bear, fittingly, made the new coach bear witness to his capabilities, scoring two goals in the third period to overwrite a 3-2 deficit for a 5-3 victory, prompting Tippett to acknowledge the effort executed from his next potential defence piece.
"You can present opportunity but it's what people do with it," Tippett, following the win at Winnipeg, said.
"A couple of guys really took advantage of that tonight."
Bear, representing his birthplace of Ochapowace Cree Nation, proceeded to make both his family and community proud by making it to The Show, taking full advantage of every following opportunity that ensued.
After Game 1 against the Vancouver Canucks, his services moved front and centre. An injury to Adam Larsson, sustained after a Quinn Hughes slap shot, left a void in Edmonton's top four, and with Bear slotted alongside fellow defender Darnell Nurse, a fit was found.
The tandem received plenty of ice time during the club's 5-0-0 opening and proved to form a balanced pairing as the season prolonged. After the calendar year flipped to 2020, big minutes became custom for Bear, who logged 20-minutes or more in 30-straight contests prior to the NHL pause.
It caused Nurse himself, the five-year journeyman, to reflect on the progress his new partner had made.
"That was an opportunity for Bearsy to step in and he took full advantage of it," Nurse said. "That's the beauty of this game: when you get an opportunity, you want to make the most of it.
"And he has."
The 2015 NHL Draft selection, chosen by the Oilers with the 124th-overall pick, made his family, coach, teammates and nation proud, supporting Edmonton's postseason bid, all the while enjoying every moment of his breakthrough campaign. He scored his share of clutch goals, including the game-winner versus the Detroit Red Wings, engaged in his first scrap in the renewed Battle of Alberta, and saw his life come full circle prior to puck-drop against the Nashville Predators.
That was evident when Bear pulsed through a rendition of 'O Canada,' sang in parts Cree and English by 14-year-old Kiya Bruno from Samson Cree Nation at Rogers Place.
Bear -- his eyes closed, head held against his gloves and lips grinning cheek-to-cheek -- embraced the moment to its fullest. It was yet another one of those aforementioned opportunities that the defenceman, with his dream of making the NHL having come to fruition, grasped wholeheartedly.
"Being First Nations and playing in the NHL, you never think you're going to hear that or get the opportunity," he said. "It was a pretty cool experience, especially because I'm playing and hearing it first-hand.
What's not to love as a 22-year-old stalwart, who's doing nothing but living his best life in Oilers silks on the club's back end? For bench boss Tippett, it was a revelation.
"It gives the team depth. And, it's homegrown depth," said the Oilers coach.
"Defencemen are hard to find in this League. If you can grow your own, that's a big bonus. We have got some young players coming who really have some bright futures. For them to jump in and play the minutes they have been, it shows well for the organization."
The transformation of Ethan Bear, from fifth-round selection to top-four rearguard, brought newfound success to the Oilers this season.
"It's a dream come true," Bear said of making it to the NHL.
"I worked my whole life and worked hard all summer to be in this position. But at the same time, being a young guy, things can change quickly. I got to stay focused and make sure I don't get too comfortable or satisfied and just keep growing every day. Keep that sharp focus and unsatisfied mentality each day."