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Future Watch: Bear a model player and person

Oilers prospect Ethan Bear is an influential figure for his teammates and community

by Paul Gazzola /

Set your sights on the Edmonton Oilers if you're looking for a prime example of how a great athlete can affect a team's performance. In Alberta's capital city with the Oilers, Connor McDavid and his superlative skill is felt throughout the lineup, upgrading the game of many Oilers players individually, resulting in a better squad collectively.

The gifted skaters on the ice always seem to have an uncanny ability to elevate the efficacy of their comrades.

It's part puck-smarts, two-way communication, trust in colleagues and of course, the ability to offer advice and take constructive criticism. A solid relationship with bench-mates isn't a requirement but it can definitely help in the process, too.

He may not be Connor McDavid - or even a forward for that matter - but defenceman Ethan Bear has that effect on his Seattle Thunderbirds.

The Oilers fifth-round (124-overall) selection in the 2015 NHL Draft is one of those prospects who can enhance the play of his teammates with the routine game he exudes each night. Bear's defence partner and longtime friend Turner Ottenbreit confirms the assertion.

"He makes the game a lot simpler for me," Ottenbreit said. "He's just such a good player on and off the ice. He's just a great team guy."

Ottenbreit has already tied his last season's point total of 16 in 30 fewer games. The Yorkton, SK native - who grew up an hour and 15 minutes away from Bear's hometown of Ochapowace - has accrued three goals and 13 assists in the 2016-17 campaign, on pace to eclipse his previous numbers by a wide margin.

"He obviously helps out a lot," Ottenbreit said. "He always makes the right play and it helps when you got a guy like that to pass the puck to when he's got a great shot and he's great with the puck."

Having both grown up in Saskatchewan and knowing one another from their minor hockey days when they skated as opponents - and then as teammates in midget for the Yorkton Harvest - the two formed a friendship early on. Both agree the relationship off the ice has a direct hand in their fluency on it.

"Absolutely, I think our relationship off the ice helps on the ice," confirmed Ottenbreit. "I think you can give a little more criticism and stuff like that. You can help each other out a little more and I feel like it helps on the ice having that relationship off the ice."

For Bear - who is fifth in goals by defenceman in the WHL with 11 and tied for second in team scoring with 32 points - it's a special opportunity that not many athletes get to experience.

"Me and Turner go way back," he said. "Not sure the actual age but growing up playing against him in minor hockey and then playing on the same teams a couple times is pretty awesome."

In a way, it's also reinvigorated his game.

"Not everyone gets this opportunity to play with someone that you really know. It makes it a little more fun, makes it more interesting for me. We can joke around, have some laughs on the ice but at the same time we take it serious."

The pair's partnership transcends the game, too. When they man the blueline together, Saskatchewan is well represented. Independently, it's a tale of two cities.

Yorkton, Ottenbreit's hometown has a population just over 19,000.

Bear's community of Ochapowace has roughly 1,500 residents.

Regardless of where they call home, though, both skaters are mentors in their respective communities.

"I know Ethan, people look up to him from Ochap," said Ottenbreit. "He's a big role model for that community there and I try to be the same in Yorkton."

Being a point of reference and body to imitate among their communities is a commendable act. It's something Bear definitely enjoys.

"I think it's pretty cool," he said. "There's quite a bit of kids in the area that will look up to us and I think Otto (and) myself are good role models. We try to do the right thing all the time but I think it's good for the minor hockey in the areas."

One way the two Seattle Thunderbirds defencemen influence Yorkton and Ochapowace's youth is getting involved in the local minor hockey scene. They try to skate with the kids as much as possible and have even coached their area's novice teams.

"A lot of players are hopefully still interested in a lot of hockey there," Bear said. "We try to keep that culture going so when we go home we like to - when we get the chance - skate with kids at the community rinks (and) even had a chance to coach our novice team. All those little things you do, it's good for the kids in the community."

The tandem's impact on their Thunderbirds squad - who are in the playoff race with a record of 21-14-3-1 - proves that it doesn't matter where you're from, it's all about where you go. The Thunderbirds, riding the performance of their top pairing, are hoping to make noise in the post-season a year after going to the finals in 2015-16.

"We have higher expectations for ourselves," said Bear. "We're a good team now and we just got to keep building towards our own goals and that's a championship."

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