Connor Bedard: Four score and 16 years ago
The top prospect for 2023 scores his way into the rarified air occupied by Wayne Gretzky, and even though 'he doesn't like to have all the attention,' the spotlight has once again found him
Prior to the World Junior Championship, Team Canada coach Dave Cameron was asked what Connor Bedard would have to do to gain his trust and work his way up the depth chart from his status as the 13th forward. Cameron said Bedard would have to play better without the puck, something Bedard has heard plenty of times before.
Well, we’ll take Cameron’s word for it that Bedard started to do that better. He must be showing it in practice, because through Canada’s first two games, the puck has constantly been on Bedard’s stick. And in the second game of the tournament, it went into the back of the net. A lot. Bedard scored four goals in Canada’s 11-2 rout of Austria, tying the single-game goals record for the Canadian junior team and becoming the first 16-year-old to post a hat trick since Wayne Gretzky, who did it twice in the 1978 tournament. Forty-four years and three days after Gretzky scored three goals and added three assists in a 9-3 win over Czechoslovakia, Bedard did him one better in the goals department.
It should be noted, however, that when Gretzky scored his hat tricks, he was almost six months older than Bedard. The Great One was 16 years and 337 days old when he had his second three-goal effort of the 1978 event. Bedard was 16 years and 164 days old and still in possession of his learner’s permit, unable to get his full-fledged driver’s licence in British Columbia until he turns 17 in July.
It may come as a surprise that Bedard has been so good in this tournament, but it does not to those who have followed his career. Huge things have been expected of this young man since he was 12 years old and he has over-delivered every time. He made it impossible for Canada not to take him with his performance in the selection camp games, and he continues to make it impossible for Cameron to not give him a bigger role. He started the first game as the 13th forward and the second game on the fourth line. All he did there was generate 12 shots. Twelve shots. On the fourth line. (And as a point of reference. When Connor McDavid was 16 playing in the World Juniors, he had as many points in the entire tournament as Bedard had in one game.)
“Full marks to Connor,” Cameron said. “Connor doesn’t need my help when the puck is on his stick and he’s in the offensive zone. He’s got exceptional status for a reason. Like some of the other offensive guys on our team, I’ve got to mature their game without the puck so they can get out of their own end through the neutral zone and then their strength can take over.”
Well, Bedard has done that. And Bedard isn’t even close to being done. As he did at the Under-18 World Championship last summer, Bedard is making himself the centerpiece of the team. It’s not a place he enjoys being, but one he can’t help but occupy with his play. “It’s funny because he doesn’t want to have all the attention,” Tom Bedard, Connor’s father, told Hockey Unfiltered. “But when he’s on the ice, he wants to do well. It sounds cliché, but he loves the team. He loves the room. He loves these events where he’s roomed with Mason McTavish, a guy he has a great relationship with because of the U18s.”
For a kid who has been doing such special things for so long, Bedard is incredibly well grounded, in part because there was never a silver spoon jammed into his mouth. His parents, Tom and Melanie, have gone to great lengths to normalize all of this for their son and not allow him to develop an oversized ego. Tom is a logger who, until this year, would drive six-to-eight hours a day to and from Vancouver to the B.C. interior with his chainsaw in his truck, working as a tree feller, which happens to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Until she moved to Regina to live with Connor on the advice of the Regina Pats this season, Melanie hosted international students in the family’s home. Bedard’s older sister, who attends the University of Calgary, had no idea how good a hockey player her little brother was until he agreed to be represented by Newport Sports and signed with the agency at the draft in Vancouver in 2019. Bedard himself didn’t even know the Under-18 World Championship existed until he was chosen for the team.
“I’m 16 and I haven’t really done much yet in my career,” Bedard said. “I think you’ve got to just kind of stay focused. My parents have really helped me with that, and my agency as well.”
That has also helped him in times of hardship. Just prior to leaving for the U18s, Connor had to deal with a very real-life tragedy when his grandfather, Garth, collided head-on with another vehicle on Highway 1 in B.C.’s southern interior and was killed. Witnesses said it looked as though Garth, who was on his way to his shop to work on some equipment, was slumped over the steering wheel before it crossed into the other lane. The next game, his last in the Western Hockey League before leaving for the U18s, Bedard scored both goals, including the overtime winner, in a 2-1 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings.
It also helped him earlier this season when, after scoring 12 goals and 28 points in 15 games as an underager last season, the goals didn’t come as easily in the first part of his second season in the WHL. After scoring three goals in his first two games with the Pats, Bedard went five straight without a goal and scored just three in his next 12 games. He has rebounded and went into the World Junior camp with 14 goals and 24 points in 24 games, but despite not playing since Dec. 8, he still leads the WHL with 132 shots.
“He was playing well, but for whatever reason, he was so snake-bitten it was bizarre,” Tom said. “He was getting such good shots. He played some of his best games this year with no points. He’s playing better than he did (last season) in the bubble. He’s faster, he stronger, he’s driving the play more.”
Bedard had three goals and six points in the two games before he left for the World Juniors and is among the tournament’s top scorers. And now he shares an accomplishment with hockey royalty. “It’s cool hearing your name with the greatest player who has ever played,” Bedard said “But it’s one game and I don’t think I’ll be getting 2,800 points in the NHL.”