Ethan Bear’s decision to rededicate himself to hockey paying off for him and the Oilers

Looking back, Ethan Bear figures his hockey future rested on two questions and one life-changing decision.

“It was basically, did I want to be an NHL player?” the Edmonton Oilers defenceman says. “Or did I want to be an AHL player?”

The decision came in the middle of an injury-plagued season with the Bakersfield Comets of the American Hockey League. After playing in 18 games for the Oilers in 2017-18, Bear found himself buried on the organizational depth chart. He scored just one goal through the first 33 games for the Comets and didn’t receive a single call-up to the Oilers for the entire 2018-19 season.

The time for action was upon him.

“I wanted to be a top, elite athlete and work every day and strive to get better every day instead of being satisfied with what I had,” says Bear, 22. “I made a lot of changes. It was a lifestyle change for me, and I like it. 

“I feel a lot better.”

In pursuit of his dream, Bear cut carbohydrates from his diet, loaded up on vegetables and ate plenty of grilled chicken and steak. He followed LeBron James on social media, soaking up the L.A. Lakers star’s dedication to nutrition and fitness as a recipe for athletic consistency. He bought and devoured books on elite training and performance.

Bear (74) leads all NHL rookies in ice time, playing on the Oilers’ top pairing with Darnell Nurse. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Instead of bouncing between Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. in the off-season, the Regina native stayed in Edmonton all summer and worked out under the guidance of Oilers strength and conditioning coach Chad Drummond.

The results? Bear leads all NHL rookies in ice-time, logging an average of 21:12 per game. And those minutes are hard ones on the top pairing with Darnell Nurse. 

Playing with poise beyond his years, the five-foot-11, 197-pounder is a superb passer with excellent vision and calm under pressure.

“We knew that he was really good,” Oilers forward Zack Kassian says. “He’s in shape. He trained like a true pro this summer, and I think he’s really reaping the benefits now. “

When veteran defenceman Adam Larsson went down with a broken leg, many outsiders figured the Oilers had zero chance of surviving October with a winning record.

The emergence of Bear is one of the big reasons the Oilers (10-4-1) are tied with the St. Louis Blues for first in the Western Conference heading into Monday’s game against Arizona.

“He’s really engaged,” Kassian says. “He’s a driven, driven kid. He’s excited to be here.

“We’re going to need him to continue being the Ethan Bear he can be for us to be successful.”

Fifteen games into the season, Bear’s name keeps coming up in early chatter surrounding the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s top rookie. (Other candidates — none of them surprises — include Colorado defenceman Cale Makar, Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes and his brother, New Jersey centre Jack Hughes.)

A member of the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan, Bear draws inspiriation from Indigenous NHLers who have come before him, such as Jonathan Cheechoo. (Associated Press)

Not bad for a guy who arrived at Edmonton’s training camp as a middle-of-the-road defensive prospect with low expectations of cracking the opening-night roster.

“It’s about what you earn and what you work for,” says Bear, who has two goals and four points heading into Monday night. “It’s the same as everything in life.

“I put a lot of time and a lot of focus this summer into making sure I was stronger. And I was ready. I was just showing off the work I put in. I know I can handle things.”

Every time he hits the ice, Bear takes pride in representing the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan. He is a celebrity back home where he learned to play hockey and looked up to his own Indigenous hockey heroes such as Carey Price, Jonathan Cheechoo and Jordin Tootoo.

“I’m just trying to do my part now,” says Bear, a fifth-round selection (124th overall) in the 2015 NHL entry draft. “I’m just showing them that hard work, staying focused and basically staying on track in life will take you anywhere. 

“I like just playing hockey. Hockey is my dream. It’s everything I wanted to do. So this is my passion. 

“Just don’t try to be somebody you’re not.”

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