How Connor Bedard became hockey's next young superstar

ByEmily Kaplan ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Hockey's most scrutinized teenager seeks the quiet life -- for now.

Connor Bedard, the most hyped NHL prospect since that Connor, was finishing up his third season in junior hockey when I visited him in March. His team, the Regina Pats, is located in the broad plains of Saskatchewan, where the average winter temperature hovers around 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Against this unforgiving backdrop, the 17-year-old Vancouver native spends most of his time at the rink -- which is where he and his teammates also take high school classes -- or at home with his mother, Melanie, who temporarily relocated and rented an apartment to ensure her son retained some sort of normalcy.

For fun, Bedard and his buddies frequent the hockey shooting range, an indoor facility where they shoot pucks for a few hours. Sometimes they'll visit the mall, where Bedard said they recently swung by the jewelry store for chains "just because. But I promise you it wasn't anything too crazy."

Bedard tries to stay out of public when he can, and as he gave me a tour in his off-roader SUV, bumping some top-40 music, it became apparent why. When he stopped at a red light, a car pulled up with four adults who recognized Bedard instantly. The driver honked and waved enthusiastically as the three passengers frantically fiddled with their phones to take photos. Bedard, clearly experienced with this exact scenario, politely smiled back.

"There's a bit of buzz, 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 a lot different getting recognized out and about. It's something I'm getting used to. It's supercool feeling the support. But you know ... I'm still a kid."

He's understating the buzz.

A winter Pats road trip drew sellouts at every arena, including the 17,000-seat Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames. Cliff Mander, a Vancouver-based marketing executive, told the Global News that he estimated Bedard brought in $1.5 million to the Western Hockey League this season.

Just imagine when he actually goes pro.

This is the reality into which Bedard is starting to settle -- even if the public perception doesn't quite match how he feels.

"Going out and meeting kids, they're excited and screaming about meeting you, you can kind of make their day or their week," 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 THE PRESUMPTIVENo. 1 pick of the 2023 NHL draft, Bedard learned his professional fate Monday night, when the NHL held its draft lottery. Teams across the league have been angling for better odds for nearly two years in hopes of landing Bedard's generational talent.

Bedard, a center, is listed at 5-foot-10, which might be generous, but nothing about his game feels small. He is as deceptive as he is unpredictable, with a hockey IQ and vision for the game that can allow him to completely tilt the ice every time he jumps over 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."

The first time Bedard read about himself in the media was at age 12, when he did an interview with The Hockey News. "I thought it was pretty cool," Bedard said. "All my friends were showing me and whatever. But yeah, it's pretty young."

At 14, he became the seventh player ever to earn "exceptional" status, which allowed him to compete at the highest level of Canadian Junior Hockey as an underage player. Wayne Gretzky called to congratulate him.

"I think it was him," Bedard said. "I hope it wasn't someone, you know, pulling a prank on me."

By 16, Bedard was the youngest player in league history to score 50 goals. And if there was any doubt Bedard was atop what NHL evaluators have deemed an extremely deep first-round draft class, he quashed it with a banger of a 2023 world juniors tournament. Bedard led Canada to a gold medal while scoring 23 points in seven games, including a highlight-reel goal in overtime to beat Slovakia in the quarterfinals.

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

"I've been going to that tournament for more than two decades," one NHL scout told ESPN. "And what Connor Bedard did, especially with all of the attention and eyes on him, is as impressive of an individual performance as you'll ever see. The only way I can describe it is pure dominance."

The only person not gushing about Bedard is Bedard himself. The teenager is well-mannered and trained in dealing with the media, following the unwritten rules of hockey -- thou shalt not talk about thyself -- as if they are scripture. Good luck getting him to admit what the world has already assumed. Every conversation about Bedard's NHL future includes qualifiers such as "if I am lucky enough to get drafted."

"He doesn't take for granted what other people are saying about him or what he's accomplished," Pats coach John Paddock said. "I've never heard him talk about being drafted No. 1, even though there's probably not a person who thinks he won't. But he knows what he wants to do and where he wants to go. And it's all business all the time. It's his routine, his habits, that all shine."

BEDARD WAS BORN on July 17, 2005, just 13 days before his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He began playing hockey at age 4 or 5. "Just stickhandling and shooting," Bedard said. "Imagining Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final stuff, like any kid."

Bedard also played soccer until he was 12, but then hockey became his full focus. His family learned to adjust.

"There was one time my sister really wanted to go to Hawaii," Bedard said. "I told my parents I really didn't want to because we were going to go for a week, and that's a really long time without hockey."

They compromised. "I went to the airport, got my ticket, and had a hockey bag," Bedard said. "I probably looked like a bit of an idiot when I got there, but I got to rollerblade and stickhandle around the seawall."

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

"He would kind of get up at 3, 4 in the morning and head to work," Bedard said. "It was a three-hour drive, sometimes four. And then you're in the mountain, climbing up there, cutting down trees. It's a pretty physical job, and dangerous. He tells stories of people getting hurt. One time he broke his leg logging."

When Tom Bedard would return home, he'd drive his son to hockey practice. On weekends, it was tournaments.

"Doing all of that, he was probably pretty tired," Bedard said. "But he always had a positive attitude."

The most prescient lesson passed down from father to son: Be where your feet are.

"He always said to never wish time away," Bedard said. "He was always like, 'Just enjoy right now and where you are right now, and before you know it whatever you are looking forward to will have happened.'"

CONNOR BEDARD ISa student of the game. He says he watches Auston Matthews goals on YouTube, then tries to replicate 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 game on the ice, and watches Crosby's news conferences and social interactions off the ice.

"[Crosby is] just incredible," Bedard said. "You see him with kids, you see him with the media, and he never really makes a mistake. He carries himself so well, always. There's a humbleness to him. He doesn't love talking about himself. He always tries to involve his teammates, involve people that have helped him."

Which is exactly what Bedard tries to replicate.

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

Even away from the spotlight, there are aspects about Bedard that make him stand out. "It kind of surprised me because it was my first time seeing it," Pats teammate Tanner Howe said, "but in the weight room he's always doing two or three extra reps. That's his thing."

And there are times when Bedard seems just like a typical teenager. "If you know him, he's actually a very funny guy," Pats teammate Alexander Suzdalev said. "He'll chirp you on the ice."

This is echoed by Howe, but out of deference, both players say they can't cite specific examples. "Just trust me," Suzdalev said. "He's got a lot of good ones."

Bedard knows there are things he can't control: where his NHL career will begin, how others perceive him. On the latter, however, he has some ideas about where he'd like people to start.

"I mean, you'll have your own opinion on watching me or whatnot," Bedard said. "But I just want to be seen as someone that has always given it their all and is a good person as much as a good player."

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