When Ethan Bear played his very first shift as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, Thursday night against the Nashville Predators, he became an important part of the club’s history.
Over the long and winding past of the Edmonton Oilers, Bear is the only player raised on a First Nations Reserve to play an NHL game with the franchise. Ethan was technically born in Regina, but was raised on the Ochapowace First Nation, near Whitewood, Saskatchewan.
The accomplishment itself is both significant and sadly…ironic.
So many of us consider “Ice” Hockey to be “our game”, Canada’s National Sport, woven into the very fabric of what it means to be Canadian. Yet, it has been a relatively difficult one for Canada’s founding peoples to participate in. The reasons for that abound: The inherent inequities of the Indian Act, the racial barriers First Nations, Metis and Inuit people have faced for generations, and even the socioeconomic conditions faced by children growing up on reserves. Many were at a disadvantage simply because historically, they could barely afford to live, let alone buy equipment and play hockey. But I digress…
The political and human side of this story has been often told (and well it deserves to be). However, how much do we know about First Nations & Metis history within the Edmonton Oilers organization?
While it is true that Ethan Bear’s story is both significant and one to be thoroughly and respectfully celebrated, it is not entirely unique:
-The first First Nations man to don an Edmonton Oilers jersey was, in fact, Jim Neilson. Neilson was born in Big River, Saskatchewan. He broke into the NHL appropriately enough with tonight’s opponent, the New York Rangers, in 1962. Neilson went on to play 1,023 games in the league. He was also one of the first First Nations men to Captain an NHL club (first the California Golden Seals, then the Cleveland Barons). But my colleague at The Cult of Hockey Bruce McCurdy reminded me that Jim Neilson, in fact, played 35 games for the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA in 1978-79, alongside Wayne Gretzky. Alas, Neilson retired after that, and never did wear the Oil Drop in an NHL game.
-Defenceman Sheldon Souray is of Metis descent (from Elk Point). He played 144 games (many of them tumultuous, unfortunately) for the NHL Oilers from 2007-10. Significant to the context of this article: Souray did in fact live part of his early life on the Fishing Lake Metis settlement in Northern Alberta.
-Shayne Corson was born in Barrie, Ontario to mother June Corson, who is of aboriginal descent. Corson played 142 games as a member of the Oilers, and served as Captain for a short and (also) somewhat stormy time.
-Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr was born to a First Nations mother, prior to being raised by adoptive parents in Spruce Grove, Alberta.
-Cree-born Craig Berube was a member of the Oilers organization in 1991, but before he could play a single game, was traded (along with Fuhr) to Toronto.
-Scott Ferguson of Camrose, Alberta suited up as a member of the Edmonton Oilers 201 times, from 1997 to 2004. He is also Metis.
-Former Oilers Assistant Coach Rocky Thompson, also Cree-born, played in Edmonton in 2004-05. It was, however, for the Edmonton Roadrunners of the AHL.
Finally, a historic stick-tap to the legendary Fred Sasakamoose.
The very first First Nations player to suit up for an NHL game (he did it 11 times for the Chicago Black Hawks, in 1954), Mr. Sasakamoose was a true trail-blazer. He was honored at an Oilers game which I attended in person, in December of 2017 at Rogers Place. It was on the very same day that he was invested with The Order of Canada. Fred Sasakamoose was recognized by his country in part for his many contributions to his community through sport.
Yet, here was a man who was taken from his home at age 6, and subsequently spent 10 years of his life in residential schools. He later went directly from junior hockey in Moose Jaw, as a teenager, to the NHL. Stunning resilience and perseverance.
While never an Oiler in the NHL, one wonders if Ethan Bear would be preparing for his 2nd career game tonight, had Mr. Sasakamoose not gone before him?
Now…onto today’s tilt, and the return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:
Projected Oilers Lines & D-Pairings
Lucic – McDavid – Draisaitl
Klefbom – Benning
Cammalleri – Nugent-Hopkins – Aberg
Nurse – Russell
Puljujarvi – Strome – Slepyshev
Sekera – Bear
Pakarinen – Khaira – Kassian
Scratches: Montoya, Auvitu, Larsson, Caggiula.
OILERS: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returns to the Oilers lineup after a long absence with cracked ribs, suffered in Las Vegas back in January. Despite that, The Nuge is still 3rd on the team in points (16-15-31 in in 46 GP). To make room for him on the roster, Ty Rattie was returned to Bakersfield of the AHL. The Oilers last faced the Rangers in Manhattan in November, a 4-2 loss. Now-former Ranger Rick Nash scored twice. The Oil are 4-6-0 over their last 10, including 2 losses in a row.
RANGERS: The Rangers are on a West Coast swing, having beaten the Canucks 6-5 in Overtime earlier in the week, and then Calgary just last night, 3-1 in Cow Town. Vladislav Namestnikov leads the Blueshirts in scoring (21-25-46 in 64 GP). Of course, much of that came while a member of Tampa Bay, pre-trade deadline. The Rangers are a perfect 18-0 when leading after 2 periods. New York’s season really fell apart in February, when they went just 3-10-1.
The game starts at 8:30 MST, and is the late game on Hockey Night in Canada.