The leader of the Ochapowace Cree Nation is standing in the middle of the Regina airport, crying. It is June 26, 2015, and Chief Margaret Bear has missed her flight to Florida by five minutes. And while the beaches of Fort Lauderdale are indeed enticing, Bear had a more important reason for making the journey. “My heart was crushed,” she said. “But I pulled myself together and started booking new flights.”
The chief made numerous stopovers and slept on the airport floor, but she got to Florida at 10 a.m. the next day – just in time to wheel over to the NHL draft, where she watched the Edmonton Oilers select Ochapowace’s own Ethan Bear in the fifth round, 124th overall.
Fast-forward to the present day where Bear is a key member of the Oilers’ defense corps and a promising rookie for a team that was in desperate need of depth coming into 2019-20. His rise is the story of hard work and commitment but also of family and community. Because wherever Ethan Bear has gone, he has never had to travel alone.
Chief Bear is a blood relative. Her cousin Lloyd is Ethan’s father. The first rink in Ochapowace Nation – a Treaty 4 territory near Regina in Saskatchewan – was named after Fred Bear, Ethan’s grandfather. When it burned down, the council (of which his mother Geraldine was a member) decided to build a new complex and name it after Ethan’s great-uncle, Denton George. “Ethan grew up in a community where there are a lot of sports-minded families,” said Chief Bear. “His grandfather and his father’s uncles were legendary hockey players here. The Ochapowace Nation leaders always kept the youth in the forefront, and having activities and sports available were a big part of that. It keeps balance in their lives.”
Ask anyone who knows about grassroots hockey and they’ll tell you that unstructured games are a fabulous way for a child to develop their skills. Bear had that opportunity because he had the rink in Ochapowace. “It’s a very humbling place,” he said of his home. “You get a lot of support because whatever you succeed in, everyone is proud, whether it’s hockey or school. It’s isolated, and there aren’t a lot of resources, but the rink is always open, so I played pickup hockey with older kids all the time.”
At 14, Bear was slated to attend the famous Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, whose alumni include Vincent Lecavalier, Rod Brind’Amour and Jaden Schwartz. Notre Dame is two hours west of Ochapowace, so it would have been an easy fit. But two weeks before he was supposed to leave, Bear got the chance to join the Pursuit of Excellence program in British Columbia through a friend in summer hockey. He was intrigued by the amount of ice time he could get at POE and made the switch, exchanging a two-hour drive for a three-hour flight. “You gotta grow up, right?” Bear said. “You have to get out of your comfort zone at some point. It was my first time going to a non-First Nations school, and you just learn to work.”
The gambit paid off, as Bear became a highly touted prospect for the 2012 WHL bantam draft. That year, the Seattle Thunderbirds used the first overall pick on future New York Islanders star Mathew Barzal. Early in the second round, they snagged Bear from POE. “He was a dominant player at that level,” said Seattle owner and director of hockey operations Russ Farwell, who was GM at the time. “And the fact he moved out to the Okanagans, it just showed a real focus and commitment by the family.”
By 16, Bear was a regular on the Thunderbirds blueline, and the support from back home was generous. His grandmother, well into her 90s, made the flight to Seattle, while Bear’s parents would drive 23 hours, once a month, to visit. When the Thunderbirds played closer to home, Bear had a cheering section – sometimes, literally, a whole section of the rink. “Any game in Saskatchewan would have a lot of people,” he said. “It was easy to play, you can just be yourself. Honestly, it felt normal. My family was just happy and excited.”
By 17, Bear was crucial to the Seattle power play, where his big shot was a weapon. Still, he lasted until the fifth round when Edmonton selected him in Florida. “The draft is only a snapshot of that day,” Farwell said. “A 5-foot-10, 5-foot-11 defenseman? You have to pull it all the way along. We thought he’d be a third-rounder, but we weren’t shocked.”
After losing the 2016 WHL championship to the Brandon Wheat Kings, the Thunderbirds came back with one more strike at gold in 2017. Bear broke his finger while blocking a shot against Kelowna in the Western Conference final, but the Thunderbirds won the series and headed to the championship against Regina. One week after the injury, Bear was back on the ice for Game 1. “I don’t know if he would have come back that fast if it wasn’t Regina, but there were 500 people from the reserve there to see him,” Farwell said. “He willed himself back and had a slapshot goal in the first game. He was huge for us.”
For Bear, the 2-1 overtime victory (he assisted on the OT winner, too) made the pain worthwhile. “It hurt the whole time,” he said. “I couldn’t play to my full ability, but I did my best. Our medical staff made a playing cast for me, and it was so wild, my hand was broken and they let me shoot at all costs. That first goal was really important, and it was a pretty cool experience.”
The Thunderbirds won the series 4-2, clinching their first WHL championship.
Two years ago, Bear made his first foray into the pro ranks. He saw 18 games with the Oilers but spent the bulk of his time in the AHL with Bakersfield. Last year was spent entirely in Bakersfield, where he put up an impressive 31 points in 52 games with the Condors. But there was more to unlock, and Bear knew it. So this summer, he stayed in Edmonton to work with strength and conditioning coach Chad Drummond and skating coach David Pelletier. “I just flipped a switch,” Bear said. “Working hard and getting personal with it, always being prepared and putting the right things in my body. I cut out junk food and most alcohol, which was really important. If I eat anything bad, I gain weight like it’s nothing.”
Bear made a commitment to getting good rest, staying focused and being consistent in his workouts.
When Adam Larsson broke his fibula in the first game of the season, the Oilers needed someone to step up, and Bear was the guy to do it. The whole summer routine impressed new associate coach Jim Playfair, who also saw the intriguing bag of skills that Bear brought to the ice. “He has great poise with the puck, a really good hockey mind and awareness,” Playfair said. “He understands defense, which is impressive for a young guy. His most important strength is getting inside of the forecheck so he can make the exit pass that starts the rush the other way.”
Bear, 22, was paired with beastly stalwart Darnell Nurse for a tandem that had been effective for Edmonton in more ways than one. Not only had they played well together, but when Larsson returned and skated alongside old friend Oscar Klefbom, Playfair didn't have to juggle his pairings anymore. “They’ve become a responsible pairing, and they’ve been a really stabilizing pair for us,” he said. “Now we’re all set up.”
In a move that harkens back to the Russian Five with the Detroit Red Wings, the Oilers tried to have Bear and Nurse out at the same time as the team’s big line of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian. That may sound like an intimidating task for a rookie, but Bear was solid because he knows what he is capable of doing. “He’s not intimidated by playing with great players like Connor and Leon,” Playfair said. “He trusts himself.”
The next step is to use his competitiveness to continue hitting new levels. Playfair believes Bear can help the Oilers in the the playoffs, but he must keep adjusting. “The games will get tighter,” Playfair said. “So we’ve talked about being a hard player away from the puck, getting a play stopped up before a zone entry.”
Ultimately, the coach sees Bear as having the potential to be a Mark Giordano-type of defenseman, someone who can be reliable and trusted on the defensive end and create offense from there. Off the ice, Bear is already fitting in. “Just a real nice person,” Playfair said. “Easy to talk to and engaging. He’s polite, quiet and respectful. He’s a real popular person because he’s humble and has respect for the game.”
Bear still needs to be pulled out of his shell sometimes. For example, Playfair’s son, Dylan, is one of the stars of the TV show Letterkenny and he swung by the dressing room for a visit this year. Initially, Bear didn’t want to bother the actor – but in the end they spent a half-hour chatting together at his stall.
Back in Ochapowace, there’s a new sign at the arena: “Home of Ethan Bear.” The family name runs deep in these parts, with the Jr. B Ochapowace Thunder boasting nine Bears on their roster this year. But there is only one NHLer, and his name rings out across the Nation. “The children, they look up to Ethan, my goodness,” said Chief Bear. “He is an inspiration, and makes our people smile. He showed that if you have your mind set on a goal, it is achievable.”
The kid who looked up to Jonathan Cheechoo, Carey Price and Jordin Tootoo now has kids looking up to him. Bear has started his own summer hockey school in Ochapowace, and he’s still getting visitors on a regular basis in the NHL. So, how big exactly is his family? “Huge, man,” he said. “Like, 200 people on my dad’s side and 200 on my mom’s side.”
Farwell remembers a “perfect” kid in Seattle who was always with the guys and brought a tremendous family with him. Playfair sees a humble young man who plays the right way and knows his own potential. When talking to reporters, Bear is laid-back, but it’s clear from his play on the ice and the work he put in during the summer that he takes his career seriously. “Being quiet,” said Chief Bear, “is a strength.”
This is an updated version of a feature that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Rookie Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.