Ethan Bear's early-season success making him a fan favourite in Edmonton
‘It’s nothing I’ve ever expected or thought of at this point’
As a kid growing up on the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan, Ethan Bear idolized NHL players like Carey Price and former players Jonathan Cheechoo and Jordin Tootoo.
Now, just months into his own NHL career, the 22-year-old rookie finds himself in a similar position.
"That stuff's cool," said Bear, whose jersey can be seen throughout the crowd at Oilers home games.
"As a kid you grow up and you dream of that stuff but now that I'm here, I'm going to stay focused and make sure I'm still dialled in and ready for the guys," he said.
Aside from the Oilers' early-season success, which sees the team atop the Pacific division, Bear's steady play on the blue-line is hands down the feel-good story in Oil Country.
Bear was drafted in the fifth round, 124th overall in 2015, the same year as Connor McDavid.
During the 2017-18 season he was called up for 18 games with the Oilers, but last year he spent the entire season with the AHL's Bakersfield Condors.
Bear's steady play has earned praise from head coach Dave Tippett. His meteoric rise doesn't surprise defensive partner Darnell Nurse.
"He's got it figured out pretty well," said Nurse, who's impressed by Bear's composure under pressure.
"Each and every night he just comes in and he's comfortable. He just plays. He doesn't think; he just plays and he's been fun to play with."
Just west of Edmonton at the Enoch Recreation Centre, the Northern Alberta Tomahawks are finishing up a practice of their own. The Metro Junior A hockey team is made up of players ranging in age from 14 to 21.
Captain Connor discusses <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Oilers?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Oilers</a> goaltending performances this season, settling back in at <a href="https://twitter.com/RogersPlace?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RogersPlace</a> for a four-game homestand, Ethan Bear's emergence & more following today's practice. <a href="https://t.co/QBtTu3B4WW">pic.twitter.com/QBtTu3B4WW</a>—@EdmontonOilers
"I think it's very inspirational," said Quinton Courteoreille, a 21-year-old forward who grew up in Fort McMurray. Bear has had a huge impact on the community, he said.
"I live with my cousins and every one of them has a Bear jersey. They trained with him this past summer in Kelowna.
"They had the chance to meet him and whatnot. They said it was an awesome experience and that he's a good guy."
'Product's really hot'
At United Sport & Cycle in south Edmonton, the Christmas rush is underway.
Upstairs, a sewing machine hums loudly as three new Oilers jerseys are branded with Bear's name and number 74 before being returned to the sales floor where it's hung next to those of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
"It's been a great success story so far, " said manager Kelly Hodgson.
"We're having a hard time keeping Bear's jersey in stock, so production has been fierce to try and keep him on the shelf," said Hodgson, who added the jersey business can be tricky at times.
'Stay away from drugs and alcohol'
"Bear really came out of nowhere and the story just emerged and obviously the product's really hot, but then for every success story like this you get caught with a few [Milan] Lucics along the way," Hodgson said with a grin.
Bear says he's flattered by the support.
Despite all the hype and early-season success, the defenceman says he comes to the rink each day focused on doing his job, on and off the ice.
"If I can be a role model and somebody that can just lead by example and they can look up to me, I take that seriously," Bear said.
"I hope they can all see what I did, and figure out as well, to just work hard and stay focused and as an athlete eat healthy and stay away from drugs and alcohol."