By JAMES TUBB on November 23, 2021.
Connor Bedard’s Western Hockey League experience has been anything but normal.
He debuted last season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as a 15-year-old after becoming the first WHL player ever granted exceptional status. Bedard is now getting to experience what the WHL fully has to offer, and he says it’s been a lot of fun so far having fans back in the buildings.
“It’s been cool,” Bedard said. “Obviously that’s a big part of sport and playing sports, so it’s definitely exciting to get our fans back and I think we are top three in attendance or something like that, it’s definitely been a lot of fun and seeing everyone come out is definitely cool.”
Bedard and the Regina Pats roll into the Hat Tuesday coming off a 4-2 win over the Moose Jaw Warriors on Saturday night.
The 2020 first overall WHL draft pick said he’s heard good things about playing in the Hat and is excited to play in Alberta for the first time.
“One of my old coaches played there and they said it’s a good atmosphere,” Bedard said. “The new rink, I hear, is pretty nice. Obviously the first time for the team in a couple years going to Alberta and first time for me so it’s definitely exciting.”
The now 16-year-old broke out last season with 28 points in 15 games to earn the WHL’s rookie of the year. He says the change from that season to this isn’t that different on the ice, but it is in the stands.
“You want fans and it’s obviously better with fans, coming in I had never played junior hockey until then so I wasn’t really equipped for fans like some of the guys in the league,” Bedard said. “I didn’t know much of a difference but you kind of notice it now – just the atmosphere, it’s definitely pretty cool.”
Bedard has opened his sophomore year in the WHL with 13 points in 17 games. The Pats started slow with a 7-10-0-0 record and recently fired head coach Dave Struch.
Bedard says his team needs to fix some lapses in their game so they don’t fall behind.
“I just think as a team we have to stick to our game plan,” he said. “We’ve had problems and lapses in the game where we’re maybe not doing what we’re supposed to and then we get scored on a bunch so it’s hard to come out of that hole.”
He says having the title of exceptional status doesn’t change how he plays or prepares, it just means more attention and outside noise. Bedard added the process to being granted the status was made pretty easy by Hockey Canada.
“I had an interview, wrote stuff about myself and had a questionnaire and stuff,” he said. “But other than those few things, it was just getting scouted. They made that process pretty easy and it wasn’t as stressful as some people think it might have been.”
The North Vancouver product is one of seven players granted exceptional status in CHL history. That list includes: John Tavares, Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Sean Day, Joe Veleno and the projected 2021 NHL first overall pick, Shane Wright.
Bedard and Wright, who plays for the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, both won gold for Canada this past summer at the U18 World Championships in Texas.
Wright and Bedard combined for three goals and two assists in the gold medal game and the former became the youngest gold medallist in IIHF U18 history. Bedard says representing his country was something he had dreamed of since he was a kid.
“It was really special, that was my first time playing for Team Canada,” Bedard said. “Growing up, that was always the dream, to being able to represent your country and win a gold medal. It was a pretty crazy experience and it was definitely super special.”
When asked if he and Wright had talked about sharing the exceptional status title, Bedard said it came up from media in shared interviews but it wasn’t something they sat around and discussed.
The duo have a chance to represent Canada on one of the biggest stages this winter, the world juniors. Bedard says it’s something he’s definitely thought of and he would much rather play in this year’s tournament than watch it.
“I mean I’ve thought about it, that’s a goal of mine,” Bedard said. “Just growing up, every Christmas watching the World Juniors and seeing that and having that dream. So, that would definitely be pretty cool if I got that opportunity and it’s definitely a goal.”
As good as Bedard was at the U18s, the MVP of the tournament was a Russian star by the name of Matvei Michkov. Since before Canada beat Russia in that tournament, Bedard and Michkov have been compared to one another much like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have been for their entire hockey careers. Bedard says he and Michkov talked after the game but said it is cool seeing what his counterpart is doing and to be compared to NHL greats.
“It’s cool to hear yourself in that sort of name of the two best players of our generation, but I don’t think about it all the time,” Bedard said.
Medicine Hat Tigers head coach and general manager says Bedard reminds him of Tiger alumni Cole Sillinger, with how he can shoot the puck.
“I think whenever you find a good young player, their talent is hard to stop, they just have a lot of talent,” Desjardins said. “He has an exceptional shot so that makes it a little different.”
Sillinger is currently playing a key role in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets after being drafted 12th overall this past summer. Bedard is eligible for the 2023 NHL draft, but says he isn’t looking that far ahead.
“You can’t really look ahead too much, I think,” Bedard said. “Right now I’m just focused on now and getting our team back in the win column. Obviously it is there and that is the goal, to play in the NHL, but you can’t really focus on it yet.”