How Connor Bedard turned the subsequent younger hockey celebrity

Ice hockey teenager is looking for the quiet life – for the time being.

Connor Bedard, the most hyped NHL pro since that Connor, was finishing his third season in junior hockey when I visited him in March. His team, the Regina Pats, are based in the broad plains of Saskatchewan, where average winter temperatures hoover around 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Against that unforgiving backdrop, the 17-year-old Vancouver native spends most of his time at the rink — where he and his teammates also take high school classes — or at home with his mother, Melanie, who has temporarily relocated and rented an apartment to ensure that her son maintained a kind of normality.

For fun, Bedard and his buddies visit the hockey shooting range, an indoor facility where they shoot pucks for a few hours. Sometimes they visit the mall, where Bedard said they recently stopped by the chain jewelry store, “just because. But I promise you, it wasn’t anything too crazy.”

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Bedard tries to stay out of the public eye when he can, and as he drove me around in his SUV playing Top 40 music, I realized why. When he stopped at a red light, a car containing four adults, who recognized Bedard immediately, stopped. The driver honked and waved enthusiastically while the three passengers frantically fumbled with their phones to take photos. Bedard, obviously experienced in this very scenario, smiled back politely.

“There’s a bit of excitement, and for me it’s kind of crazy to see some of the things and people I’ve been compared to,” Bedard said. “It’s very different to be recognized on the road. It’s something I’m getting used to. It’s super cool to feel the support. But you know… I’m just a kid.”

He understates the excitement.

A Winterpats road trip resulted in sold-out seats at every stadium, including the 17,000-seat Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames. Cliff Mander, a Vancouver-based marketing executive, told Global News that he estimates Bedard brought $1.5 million to the Western Hockey League this season.

Imagine if he actually turns pro.

That’s the reality Bedard is beginning to settle into — even if public perception doesn’t quite align with his feelings.

“Going out and meeting kids, they’re excited and clamoring to meet you, you can make their day or week whatever,” Bedard said. “But for me, when I go home and look in the mirror, I don’t really see a famous person. I just see the same guy I’ve always been.”

AS SUSPECTED Bedard, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL draft, learned his professional destiny Monday night when the NHL held its draft lottery. Teams across the league have been looking for better odds for almost two years, hoping to land Bedard’s generational talent.

Bedard, a center, is listed at 5-foot-10, which may be generous, but nothing about his game feels small. He’s as deceptive as he is unpredictable, with a hockey IQ and vision for the game that can enable him to completely tip the ice every time he leaps the boards. But his most elite attribute is his shot.

“It’s remarkable to see,” said Oilers star Connor McDavid, who skated with Bedard a few times over the summer. “He shoots it so hard and with such a quick release.”

Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon was even more blunt: “His release is one of the best in the world now…at 17.”

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The first time Bedard read about himself in the media was at age 12 when he gave an interview with The Hockey News. “I thought it was pretty cool,” Bedard said. “All my friends showed me and whatever. But yes, it is quite young.”

At 14, he became the seventh player to ever achieve exceptional status, allowing him to compete as an underage player at the highest level of Canadian junior hockey. Wayne Gretzky called to congratulate him.

“I think it was him,” Bedard said. “I hope it wasn’t someone, you know, pranking me.”

At 16, Bedard became the youngest player in league history to score 50 goals. And if there was any doubt that Bedard was at the top of what NHL evaluators called extremely deep draft class in the first round, he smashed them with a bang of a 2023 World Juniors tournament. Bedard led Canada to a gold medal while scoring 23 points in seven games, including a highlight roll goal in overtime to beat Slovakia in the quarters.

Bedard broke five records at the tournament, surpassing Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr and Eric Lindros in multiple categories.

“I’ve been going to this tournament for more than two decades,” an NHL scout told ESPN. “And what Connor Bedard has done, especially with all the attention and eyes on him, is as impressive an individual achievement as you will ever see. I can only describe it as pure dominance.”

The only one who doesn’t gush about Bedard is Bedard himself. Well mannered and adept at dealing with the media, the teenager abides by the unwritten rules of hockey — don’t talk about yourself — as if they were scripture. Good luck getting him to admit what the world has already accepted. Any conversation about Bedard’s NHL future includes qualifiers like “if I’m lucky enough to get drafted.”

“He doesn’t take for granted what others say about him or what he’s achieved,” said Pats coach John Paddock. “I’ve never heard him talk about being drafted No. 1, although there’s probably nobody who thinks he won’t. But he knows what he wants to do and where he wants to go. And it’s all just business.” Time. It’s his routine, his habits, that all shine.

Bedard’s performance at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship cemented the feeling that he will be the first player selected in the 2023 NHL Draft. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

BEDARD WAS BORN on July 17, 2005, just 13 days before his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started playing hockey when he was 4 or 5 years old. “Just stick handling and shooting,” Bedard said. “Imagine Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals stuff, like any kid.”

Bedard also played soccer until he was 12, but then he turned his full attention to hockey. His family has learned to adapt.

“One time my sister really wanted to go to Hawaii,” Bedard said. “I told my parents I really didn’t want that because we were going for a week and that’s a really long time without hockey.”

They made compromises. “I went to the airport, got my ticket, and had a hockey bag with me,” Bedard said. “I probably looked a bit of an idiot when I got there, but I was allowed to rollerblade and stickhandle around the seawall.”

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Bedard said he got his work ethic from his father Tom, a logger in Vancouver.

“He kind of got up at 3, 4 a.m. and went to work,” Bedard said. “It was a three-hour drive, sometimes four. And then you’re in the mountains, climbing up there, cutting down trees. It’s quite physical work and dangerous. He tells stories of people who have been hurt. Once he collapsed his leg.”

When Tom Bedard returned home, he would drive his son to hockey practice. There were tournaments on the weekends.

“He was probably pretty tired with all of this,” Bedard said. “But he always had a positive attitude.”

The most forward-thinking lesson passed from father to son: Be where your feet are.

“He always said never wish your time away,” Bedard said. “He used to say, ‘Just enjoy it where you are, and before you know it, everything you’re looking forward to will have happened.'”

CONNOR BEDARD IS a student of the game. He says he watches Auston Matthews’ goals on YouTube and then tries to mimic aspects of his shot. He examines McDavid’s skating, Patrick Kane’s passing. But Bedard draws the most holistic inspiration from Crosby. Bedard studies Crosby’s puck protection and 200-foot play on the ice, and observes Crosby’s off-ice press conferences and social interactions.

“[Crosby is] just incredible,” said Bedard. “You see him with kids, you see him with the media, and he never really makes a mistake. He carries himself so well, always. He has a humility. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. He’s always trying to involve his teammates, to involve people who have helped him.”

This is exactly what Bedard is trying to replicate.

Bedard said if he gets a big NHL paycheck, he wants to thank his family for their support. “I’ll probably buy my mom something,” Bedard said. “My dream is to pay off their house or get them a house. I hope that one day I can do that.”

Even away from the limelight, there are aspects of Bedard that set him apart. “It kind of surprised me because it’s the first time I’ve seen it,” said Pat’s teammate Tanner Howe, “but in the weight room he’s always doing two or three extra reps. That’s his thing.”

And sometimes Bedard seems like a typical teenager. “If you know him, he’s actually a very funny guy,” said Pat’s teammate Alexander Suzdalev. “He’ll chirp you on the ice.”

This is repeated by Howe, but out of respect, both players say they can’t give specific examples. “Just trust me,” Suzdalev said. “He has a lot of good ones.”

Bedard knows there are things he can’t control: where his NHL career will begin, how others perceive him. With the latter, however, he has some ideas as to where to start.

“I mean, you’re going to have your own opinion on whether you’re watching me or anything,” Bedard said. “But I just want to be seen as someone who has always given everything and is a good person and a good player.”

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