RALEIGH, N.C. – It is likely that few Indigenous players who have made it to the National Hockey League felt the indulgent luxury of playing for themselves.
Often, they represent something bigger, something more than themselves. Many are role models, links between the First Nations trailblazers who overcame enormous odds and obstacles and played before them, and all the Indigenous kids watching them now and dreaming that anything is possible.
Three decades ago, when Gino Odjick was early in his second season with the Vancouver Canucks, he scored on a penalty shot against the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada. As a young reporter with The Vancouver Sun, I remember talking to one of Gino’s friends, who said when the puck went past Mike Vernon it was like the entire Algonquin reserve of Kitigan Zibi, where Odjick grew up near Maniwaki, Que., bounced.
There may have been another bounce Sunday on the Ochapowace Nation reserve in Eastern Saskatchewan when Ethan Bear, who has re-energized his NHL career with the Canucks, scored late in the second period to launch Vancouver back from a 2-0 deficit and towards an improbable 4-3 shootout victory against an elite Carolina Hurricanes team that started the game 24 points ahead in the standings.
Bear’s goal came against the team that traded him to the Canucks in October, which is why the defenceman dropped to one knee and pumped his fist a couple of times upon scoring.
But it also came not long after news spilled across the internet that Odjick, who had been mentoring Bear this season, had died in Vancouver of a heart attack after battling for nearly nine years a rare blood disorder that was supposed to kill him within a few months of its diagnosis back in 2014. Odjick was 52 years old.
Bear, who is 25 and was keenly aware as a kid of Odjick-the-player, did not learn of Odjick’s death until Canucks trainer Brian (Red) Hamilton told him a few minutes after players came off the ice jubilant following Elias Pettersson’s one-handed shootout winner.
“I got a little teary-eyed after Red told me,” Bear said. “It was really emotional, definitely tough.”
Odjick asked to meet Bear when the Hurricanes visited Vancouver on Oct. 24. Bear was healthy-scratched, as he was for every Carolina game this season while the team looked for a trading partner.
“I got to sit with him and chat and that was pretty cool,” Bear said Sunday. “He knew the kind of player I was, and he knew I was working hard and I had a lot to prove in this league. There’s just so much that I’ve gone through that not many players have had to go through. He really helped me just stay motivated.
“He would always message me and stuff like that. If I was playing well (or) if I needed to step it up, he was always there to give some little advice. That’s all you can ask for. This league, as hard as it is, every day you try to get better. But some days are harder than others and it’s always nice to have someone to look up to, who’s been through it as well, to support you. I’m definitely going to miss him.”
Four days after that meeting in the Canucks alumni suite at Rogers Arena, Bear was traded to Vancouver. He said the 27 years between him and Odjick didn’t matter.
“Everybody knew who Gino Odjick was growing up,” he said. “He was definitely one of the first Indigenous players to make a trail for the rest of us. Whenever you lose a legend like that, someone who’s honestly a big influence on the native community, it’s tough, right?”
Bear’s goal at 17:52 of the second period, on a weighted pass from Andrei Kuzmenko, was followed by J.T. Miller’s tying goal at 7:35 of the third. And after Sebastian Aho scored what seemed like a sure winning goal for Carolina on a breakaway at 17:08, Brock Boeser tied it again with 17 seconds remaining on a rebound from Bo Horvat, who was beautifully set up in the slot by Kuzmenko.
So on the day Odjick died, Bear scored the goal that started his team’s comeback.
“And that’s literally why I was crying,” he said. “It’s like, you can’t make this up, you know what I mean? Everything happens for a reason in this world.”
The goal, that night — sadness and joy — will become more precious with age. It’s now in Bear’s heart, which is also what Gino was about.
Sure, most hockey fans love a heavyweight who will fight for his team and teammates. But Odjick’s immense popularity in B.C. was more broadly rooted. His earnestness and honesty could overwhelm you. He was genuine, instantly disarming. He never lost his natural goodness or became cynical.
“I know it’s a really sad day for British Columbians and Canuck fans and everything else,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He was such a big part of the Canucks and we’ll miss him. We have a great night here but at the same time, it’s very sad overall for Canuck fans. We lost a great Canuck, maybe one of the greatest. . . not for scoring but for popularity, doing what he had to do. What a tough job he had when he played. It’s a sad day for that.”
It was probably both joyous and sad for Boudreau, too.
Canuck players are conditioned to a lot of noise in the market. But they’re not stupid; they hear the reports about the management pursuing Rick Tocchet to replace Boudreau. They’ve been aware since the season began about the disconnect between Boudreau and Jim Rutherford, the hockey operations president who inherited the coach, and they know how those strained relationships usually end.
And yet, after four straight losses and down two goals on the road against a Stanley Cup contender, Canuck players were still sliding in front of pucks, urgently trying to come back and, at the end, celebrating like the win meant something.
It certainly meant something to Boudreau.
“They play hard because, you know, we’re all in it together,” he said. “I don’t know, they’re a good group. They’re a good group, they want to win. I’ve been saying this all along. It doesn’t work all the time, but they come to play and they come to win. I’m happy and proud that they work hard for me.”