With newfound focus, Ethan Bear’s hunting for spot on Oilers blue line

Calgary Flames' Andrew Mangiapane (88) and Edmonton Oilers' Ethan Bear (74) battle for the puck during first period NHL pre-season action in Edmonton, Alta., on Friday September 20, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

KELOWNA — “You know, it’s my third year pro now. It’s about time I figured it out.”

Ethan Bear is doing what only the true pros do. He’s looking squarely into the mirror, staring right into the eyes of the guy he sees, and saying, “it’s about time I stepped up and put the work in.”

Those are his quotes: “It’s about time I stepped up.” “About time I figured it out.”

We’ve seen hundreds of young Ethan Bears come along over the years. Talented, head and shoulders the best kid on every team since they were in Atoms.

Fitness? They’re in pretty good shape. Good enough to dominate in junior, right?

But eventually, they hit a level where everyone is as good as they are. They get to an NHL training camp and everyone is good. They go to the AHL and they can’t just coast on God given talent anymore.

Some guys never figure it out — and they never play. Others step back, take that long look into their soul, and tell themselves they have more to give.

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Maybe it’s not everyone else’s fault. Maybe it’s my fault.

“I had my fun last summer, and the summers before. It’s time to grow,” Bear told Sportsnet last spring in San Diego, when we visited for the Bakersfield Condors Round 2 playoff series. “To realize how much hard work it takes to make it in the NHL.”

Back in May, it was only talk. And we’ve heard a lot of talk from a lot of guys over the years.

Here in late September however, it is a Bear fact, as the five-foot-11, 190-pounder made the traveling roster and arrived in Kelowna with an excellent shot at breaking camp as an Edmonton Oiler. With three pre-season games remaining, Bear sits in a four-man group including William Lagesson, Evan Bouchard and Brandon Manning, fighting for the last job on Edmonton’s blue-line.

(We are assigning Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Joel Persson, Kris Russell and Matt Benning to the first six spots.)

“There are still positions up for grabs,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “The defence is not set in stone by any stretch. There is still some tinkering there to do.”

The first practice here was long, fast-paced and Tippett-approved, coming one day after the Oilers players rented a boat large enough to tour 30 players around Lake Okanagan on a mandated day off for the players. For the first time, on a vessel with superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and veteran defencemen like Adam Larsson and Kris Russell, Bear took it all in as a guy who felt he belonged.

“For me, it’s about time I stepped up and put the work in,” said the 22-year-old, who grew up an Indigenous kid in the Ochapowace Nation near Whitewood, Sask. “I feel more confident right now, and I’m playing for a spot. I’m making plays out there, I’m focused. I’m not worried about how I feel out there.”

There is basically one spot open on the Oilers’ defence, though it could be one of many positions among the seven-man unit. The right side next to Klefbom looks like it could go to Persson, who comes from Sweden on a one-way deal, but not necessarily. Bear is a right-shot as well.

Tippett has said he doesn’t want defencemen playing on their off-side, preferring three lefties and three righties among his starting six. Benning’s hold on the right side of the third pairing next to Russell is certainly not a lock. It could be Bear instead, and so could the seventh spot, an assignment that will not go to Bouchard, but could go to Lagesson or Bear.

To be honest, with the knowledge that Lagesson and Bear are both this close to sticking, we would remove both Bouchard and Manning from the list of hopefuls. These Oilers, under new GM Ken Holland, won’t rush a first-year pro into NHL action. Bear and Lagesson have both played two years of professional hockey, and would be fine even to open as the No. 7.

“(Bear) is an interesting guy. He looks quicker, and his mindset seems really clear,” Tippett said. “He’s come in great shape. He worked hard all summer. I love his attitude. He has a positive attitude — he’s upbeat all the time.”

You can compare Bear to that guy on the office who said he’d drop 35 pounds at the gym, then went out and did it. To that friend who quit smoking after 20 years, or the person who said they would run a marathon — and then did it.

There is, at the same time, a sense of accomplishment in his voice, and the sound of a 22-year-old who really doesn’t know anymore what his ceiling could be.

He’s a fifth-round pick who had 135 points in his last two years of junior in Seattle. Now he’s in the best shape of his life, and in the hunt for a full-time NHL gig.

“I watched guys like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Shannon Sharp,” Bear said of his summer. “How they’re just consistent, consistent, consistent, trying to improve themselves every single day. Following those guys on social media, it turned something on in my brain.

“I have to take care of myself, and make sure I improve. That’s what I did.”

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