An unexpected inspiration

Students, teachers and chaperones with Wapawikoschikan Community School in Pelican Narrows, Sask., pose for a photo at Rogers Place before heading in to watch the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers take on the Nashville Predators on March 1, 2018. Jason Linklater/Submitted

Pelican Narrows students surprised by local NHL d-man Ethan Bear

For one group of high school students from Pelican Narrows, Sask., happenstance has taken on a new meaning.

As the group of 22 students from Wapawikoschikan School made their way to Edmonton as part of a school trip to see a NHL Oilers game on Thursday, they got some unexpected news.

Ethan Bear, a budding Indigenous defenceman who grew up on the Ochapowace First Nation east of Regina, would get his first NHL start that same game against the visiting Nashville Predators.

“None of us knew,” Wapawikoschikan teacher Wendy Linklater said with excitement.

She was one of the school’s main planners in organizing the trip.

“We were kind of contemplating when should we go; we were just looking at dates, and some days we couldn’t go because of events with the school.

“Finally, I said ‘ok, let’s just pick March 1.’ We said ‘ok, let’s go,’” she explained.

“We found tickets for the game, and we were just travelling on our way to Edmonton when we heard Ethan bear had been called up. So the kids were pretty excited.”

That prompted the students, Linklater and the chaperones travelling with the group to make up some impromptu signs showing their support for the Saskatchewan-born hockey player.

Now 20 years old, Bear had a successful Western Hockey League career with the Seattle Thunderbirds, spending all four of his seasons in the league with that club.

During the 2016-17 season and in his final year of eligibility with the Thunderbirds, Bear helped guide Seattle to a WHL championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup after beating the Regina Pats four games to two.

Prior to that, Bear was drafted by the Oilers in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The Edmonton club selected him third overall in the fifth round.

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear, centre left, signs autographs and greets students from Wapawikoschikan Community School in Pelican Narrows, Sask., after his first NHL game, played against the Nashville Predators on March 1, 2018, at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. — Wendy Linklater/Submitted

The chance to see an Oilers game, let alone a local hockey player who cracked the pro ranks, was a big deal for the kids, Linklater said, underscoring how popular hockey is in Pelican Narrows.

“The kids in the school have their own favourite NHL teams. It’s very big. Kids play hockey in the community at the rinks, on the streets; so I would say it’s pretty big.”

The teacher said that she and her colleagues originally planned the Edmonton trip at the beginning of the school year as a way to motivate her school’s students to have good attendance in class and to increase student retention.

They aimed for a 90 per cent attendance rate, from the start of the school year to the completion of three six-week sections of classes, referred to as three blocks.

Among the 22 grade 10-12 students who hit that mark, three of them had 100 per cent perfect attendance, for which they were rewarded with $300 each, Linklater said.

Reflecting on the trip and the Oilers game experience, grade 10 student Tamarus McKay said it was important for her to see Bear suiting up for the NHL club.

“For me, it was inspiring because of how far he went, as a Native person,” she said.

“He influences me to stay in school and to become as successful as he is. Just looking at him out on the ice, made me wonder how far we could all go; if he can go that far, I know we can go that far.”

She described why it’s important for her to see an Indigenous person from Saskatchewan finding success.

“For me I find it amazing because of how many Natives could be unsuccessful; but just looking at him, he’s what makes me want to succeed and want to never give up,” she said.

Equally impressive for her and her classmates was what happened after the Oilers game.

Bear, his family and his Ochapowace chief joined the Wapawikoschikan students to meet, chat and sign autographs.

McKay agreed that it showed how Bear has a support system around him that’s helped him succeed.

“Meeting them was a good feeling, to see how proud his parents are of him. Looking into their eyes, I could see how proud they are of Ethan.”

Both McKay and Linklater said the entire experience made the 10-hour drive from Pelican Narrows to Edmonton – and back – worth it.

Pelican Narrows is located about 390 kilometres northeast of Prince Albert. According to Linklater, Wapawikoschikan is the second-largest Indigenous school in Saskatchewan; it’s home to about 1,200 students, she said.