As the Seattle Thunderbirds wrap up the regular season this weekend, defenseman Ethan Bear is preparing for what might be his last postseason with the team.
The 19-year-old has played four season with the T-Birds and has one year of eligibility left in the Western Hockey League (WHL), but hopes to make a move to the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield (Calif.) Condors, an affiliate team of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers selected Bear in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft and signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract last summer.
“Four years goes by fast in this league, especially with the group of guys we have,” Bear said of his time with the T-Birds. “It has been a lot of fun. The more fun you are having, the faster time goes by. I have really enjoyed every moment.”
And Bear plans to soak up every moment of the last few games of the regular season.
Last Friday, the T-Birds clinched home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. As of Tuesday, the team was in first place in the U.S. Division and the Western Conference standings. The T-Birds played Spokane on Wednesday night after the Kent Reporter press deadline, before wrapping up the season with a two-game homestand against Portland on Saturday and Vancouver on Sunday at the ShoWare Center.
The postseason kicks off with home games at 7:35 p.m. Friday, March 24, and 7:05 p.m. Saturday, March 25, against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
Last season, the T-Birds lost the WHL championship series to the Brandon Wheat Kings. This year, the team is poised to make another strong run in the playoffs, Bear said.
“We are really mature for a team,” he said. “We respect our opponents. We don’t come out every game thinking it is going to be a cakewalk. Every game is going to be a hard-fought battle. I think that mentality is going to help you win games. We are probably just as strong as we were last year.”
Although Bear’s primary role is defense, he was tied, as of Tuesday, with Regina’s Connor Hobbs for the most goals scored by a WHL defensive player this season with 28. On Feb. 13, Bear surpassed Shea Theodore, who played for the T-Birds from 2010 to 2015, for the most goals scored by a defensive player in club history. Bear is fourth in assists for a defenseman, and second behind Theodore for points (a combined total of assists and goals) in the franchise record books. As of Tuesday, Bear had 66 career goals and 126 assists.
“I think each and every year I just got better at it, just shooting more,” Bear said of scoring goals. “You start out young, you don’t play as much as you do when you are older. I think now that I’m getting that opportunity – I am getting every opportunity – and I am just taking advantage of that and just shooting as much as I can and scoring a lot more. When you play in different situations, you learn from those and then next time around you learn to put the puck in the net.”
But Bear’s focus each game is defense.
“When you are playing against the top lines you want to shut them down every night,” Bear said. “We’re focused on that. We know that comes first before scoring any goals. We’ve got to take care of our own end first, and I think this year we are doing a good job of that.”
Bear, who is of Cree – native Canadian – descent, grew up around hockey on the Ochapowace reservation in Saskatchewan.
“Where I am from, everyone plays,” he said. “It is kind of the main thing to do. Every kid plays hockey. We live at the rink. It is kind of the main sport.”
Even from a young age, Bear had hopes of playing in the WHL.
“Being Canadian, it is the first league you learn to watch,” he said. “Now that I am playing, it doesn’t seem like a really big deal to me. It is something that I wanted to do and I did. Now, I’ve just got to keep moving.”