By Andrew Eide
Early in Tuesday's win against Moose Jaw, Seattle defenseman Ethan Bear picked up the puck on the point during a T-Birds power play. He took a couple of strides, skating into the faceoff circle and fired a wrist shot that found its way through traffic and into the Moose Jaw net.
The goal was Bear's fourth goal of the year as the 16-year-old rookie continues his strong year on Seattle's blue line.
Bear hails from Ochapowace, Saskatchewan and while the T-Birds feature a couple of higher profile rookies in center Matthew Barzal and right wing Keegan Kolesar, Bear has quietly been having an impressive first year in the WHL. Playing a position that is tough and taxing for young players, Bear has excelled and seems to be gaining confidence with each game.
"I think things have smoothed out for me as a 16-year-old coming in," he says. "I have a few mistakes but (Matt) Odette takes me under his wing, gives me knowledge. I really like it, it's a lot of fun. It's a big challenge but I'm really enjoying it."
Seattle selected Bear in the second round of the 2012 Bantam Draft, and he spent last year playing midget hockey for the Yorktown Harvest in Saskatchewan. He scored seven goals and 35 points for the Harvest, and says that jumping from midget hockey to the WHL has been an eye opener for him as he's had to adjust to another level of opponent.
"Mostly speed and skills-wise," Bear says of the difference. "A lot of these players are really good and they're good with the puck. As a defenseman you want to be like those smart players, play your zone. There's a few systems you want to run so you can shut those players down."
Bear has been shutting those players down for the most part and has a plus-4 rating so far on the year. Last season, Bear was coached in Yorktown by former NHL player Jeff Odgers. When asked about the defenseman, Odgers praised Bear saying "He's a 15-year-old, but he plays with the poise of a veteran."
A year later and in a tougher league, Bear continues to play with that poise. He plays a calm game and never seems rattled when he has the puck in his own end, with forecheckers bearing down on him. Its at those moments that young players often panic, turn the puck over and watch it end up in their own net.
Bear says that poise comes naturally to him.
"It's kind of my personality," he says. "I'm calm when it comes to games. Before games I like to get hyped up but then during the game I'm really calm. I just look at the positive through everything I do, sometimes there can be some negative but I don't let that get to me. Make sure I'm staying positive, calm and relaxed on the bench. It's just a big part of me, I like to be calm and relaxed."
Being calm and relaxed has helped Bear log some important ice time this year.
Steve Konowalchuk has faith in his rookie as Bear routinely plays minutes on the power play and penalty kill. The T-Birds defensive pairings have been working consistently all year, and Bear has been matched up with veteran Adam Henry ever since Henry was acquired from Lethbridge. The two have developed some chemistry and Bear has learned a lot from his partner.
"He helps me out a lot," Bear says. "He's a smart player, he's very offensive and I'm more of a two-way player. We help each other out and we find each other on the ice. He's a really good guy, I like playing with him. He's a lot of fun, makes little jokes on the bench."
The T-Birds have had 16-year-old defensemen play a big role in seasons past. Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf were both thrown to the wolves their rookie years due to the lack of depth the club had then. They took some lumps but have come out the other end.
Bear says having those guys on the team is great, but they don't talk too much about their rookie experiences.They do, however, help him out quite a bit.
"They mostly just talk to me about how I can improve my game," he says. "They're good guys, I think they had it a little bit rougher than I do, I've had an easier way because they're really good."
During the holidays the T-Birds had to play without their rookie in the lineup as he was selected to play for Team West in the U-17 tournament. That tournament features some of the best 16-year-old players from all over the world. It's an experience Bear says he won't soon forget.
"It was probably the most fun I've had in hockey," he said. "It's a great bunch of guys, they're all your age, you know them and you're familiar with them. You get to see what the skills are like in other countries, like Sweden and Czech Republic. Those guys play a different type of game. It was really nice to play against those guys and see how you match up with other players."
Watching Bear play you get the feeling that he has more international play in his future with Team Canada. Not only did he play well, but he was selected to be the captain for his squad in the tournament.
"It was nice, the coaches were looking at me in a leadership role," he said. "I really took advantage of that role and made sure we stayed composed during games, made sure we were focused. I really liked it, there were a lot of guys they could have given the 'C' to, I'm very honored I got to wear it."
With the start to his junior career that Bear has had the potential he has shown is exciting. As he grows stronger, older and more experienced, it appears he will develop into one of the top defensemen in the WHL. His play will surely garner some attention from NHL scouts next year, his draft year, and don't be surprised to see him ranked pretty highly.
But for now, none of that matters. For now, Bear is focused on this year and improving his game as much as he can. He's had success, but Bear says there are still things he can work on.
"Mostly my defensive zone and my speed," he says. "I've got to be a little bit faster, quicker feet. I have to take care of my own end, that's my job as a defenseman that has to be my strong point."
When you talk to Ethan Bear you can't help but walk away impressed. He is humble, thankful to his teammates and coaches and does have that veteran poise his former coach spoke of. His play on the ice is equally impressive, and he is one of the reasons that the future of the Seattle club looks very strong.
Bear and the T-Birds will next be in action Friday night as they head to Kennewick to play the Tri City Americans.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.