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After recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, which forced him to miss the first couple of months of the season, Ethan Bear is back in the National Hockey League.
Bear, a member of Ochapowace Nation in Saskatchewan, signed a two-year contract with the Washington Capitals in late December.
Bear, 26, had spent the 2022-23 campaign with the Vancouver Canucks. When the Canucks’ season concluded he decided to represent Canada at the world championships, which was co-hosted by Finland and Latvia this past May.
Bear sustained a shoulder injury in that tournament. The Canucks opted not to offer Bear another contract at the time making him an unrestricted free agent.
Though there was some speculation Bear would still sign with the Vancouver franchise once he was healthy, he instead inked a deal with Washington.
Bear was skating with the Capitals and also travelling with the club before he played his first game with the squad. He was pleased team officials gave him the opportunity to get to know some of his new teammates and that he was not forced into action.
“It’s been really nice, to be honest, knowing that I’m not getting rushed into a situation,” he said. “Being able to get to know the guys a little bit, watch a couple of games, and to just kind of get comfortable with the team environment, that’s been really nice.”
Bear made his Capitals’ debut on Dec. 30, in Washington’s 3-2 home shootout loss against the Nashville Predators.
“It was great,” he said. “I had a lot of fun tonight. The emotion, the adrenaline, the nerves – I felt all of it getting ready.”
Bear obviously would have preferred if it was his new squad that earned the victory.
“I wish we would have got a better result,” he said. “But it was a really close game. I think it could have went either way. I thought we played better than we have the past few games. But I’m just really happy I didn’t feel really tired today and it kind of shows just how much I’ve taken care of myself coming here. Over-all it was a good game and I’m happy.”
Bear played slightly more than 20 minutes in his first game in a Washington jersey.
“Honestly, you know what, I kind of surprised myself a bit,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to feel.”
It didn’t take him long to realize he was once again prepared for the rigors of the NHL.
“After my third or fourth shift, my legs weren’t burning and I thought ‘I guess I’m back’,” he said.
“I got my rhythm back pretty quick and I started to make the plays that I like to make.”
Bear said that during his rehab he had skated quite a bit on his own and also with his trainer and his skills coach.
“It paid off and I’m happy with the way I felt,” he said. “Now I can just keep getting better and better every game.”
Bear also said that he believes his shoulder injury was perhaps a blessing in disguise. It gave him some additional time to prepare for the current season. And since he was also able to strengthen other parts of his body, he now feels he’s probably in the best shape of his life.
“It’s not often that a player gets six months to dial in on your body,” he said. “Because when the off-season starts, it’s only like three months. It’s not a lot of time. And one-on-one training with my strength coach is something that you usually don’t get when you train with a group of guys. I’m nitpicking every little thing to try to get perfect, and, honestly, I’ve never felt better.”
Bear said his forced time off from the game allowed him to reflect on his career and his journey.
“And it makes you appreciate being here and being in this environment and playing in the National Hockey League a lot more,” he said. “It makes you want to be more motivated and more hungry. And it helped me realize just how much I love to play.”
Bear also said his six-month rehab didn’t feel long.
“It’s gone by quick,” he said. “And now that it’s all settling in here, I’ve done everything I possibly could to be ready. So, I’m not going to be second guessing myself.”
The Capitals are Bear’s fourth NHL team. He had been drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the fifth round, 124th over-all in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Bear spent four seasons with the Oilers’ organization before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer of 2021.
He played one year with the Hurricanes before being traded to Vancouver early last season.
Washington’s next game is Tuesday, Jan. 2 in Pittsburgh against the host Penguins.
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