Connor Bedard, first to achieve outstanding player status in the West
Steve Marr had heard of Connor Bedard before. Head coach of the West Van Academy under-18 program, he had been told extensively about this young phenomenon who had been destroying everything in his path since his early childhood. And as soon as he saw it with his own eyes, he understood the craze.
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Marr was one of many hockey men who hoped to sign the young sensation for the 2019-20 season, despite the fact that he led a roster of players aged 16 or 17 and Bedard only had one. 13.
“I will always remember the first game I saw of him. He was only 12 at the start of the season and he had scored six goals. I walked out of the arena with neck issues from turning to my program director every time Connor made a play.
After the season, Bedard agreed to join Marr with the under-18s and make his debut there, aged 14.
Photo provided by Steve Marr
Connor Bedard fulfilled the expectations placed on him in the 2020-2021 season, ultimately becoming the first WHL player to earn Outstanding Player status.
Bedard is off to a humble start — by his standards, we understand — with three assists in his first two games. Then he exploded with two goals and two assists in his third game against players two or three years older than him. He never looked back, en route to another season of dominance during which he collected 84 points in 36 games, which once again placed him first in league scoring.
Throughout the season, rumors swirled that Bedard had applied to Hockey Canada to obtain exceptional status allowing him to make the jump to the WHL the following season, at age 15. At that time, six players had obtained this privilege: John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Sean Day, Connor McDavid, Shane Wright and Joseph Veleno, but none in the West.
And the rumors are true. The Bedard Clan, along with Marr, have drawn up a definite plan to achieve this goal. But they have no right to talk about it.
“Everyone knew Connor had made a request, but Hockey Canada had asked us to keep it a secret. They even made us sign a confidentiality agreement, recalls Steve Marr. Internally, the players knew about it, but we couldn’t talk about it. It was a rather special situation because I had to manage with an emphasis on team culture, but, on the other hand, I had to make decisions in order to help an individual achieve their goals and give them privileges that I don’t normally offer. »
In contact with representatives of Hockey Canada, Marr then obtains the information that representatives of the national federation will be present during a few predetermined weekends, in order to evaluate the game of the young Bedard.
“At that moment, I was wondering what to do with Connor. Would I let him know, and if so, would that make him anxious? It took me a long time to decide on a specific plan and in the end I thought Connor’s goal was to play in the best league in the world and that kind of pressure would be part of his life. »
Involved in decisions
Marr therefore decides to deviate from his usual philosophy and include Bedard in his strategic decisions.
“It’s the only time in the year where I allowed myself to make an exception. I really wanted it to go as well as possible for him. During the week before these games, we had a lot of meetings with him. He was allowed to choose who he wanted to play with and how he preferred to be used on the power play. Each time, Connor answered us the same thing: “do what is best for the team”. He never wanted to be treated differently. That’s when I saw it was real. »
Because we must not believe that success has gone to his head, assures Marr.
“He’s not the kind of player who wants to hear what he does well. He wants to be told that he can still reach another level. Obviously, we’re all human and it’s important to be told what we do well, but Connor wants to be challenged every day. We had created an advanced stats system that measured multiple categories and you could see how much he hated to perform poorly. He sees the opportunity to be one of the best in the world and that’s what fuels him. »
A marked player
Marr has a very, very specific example that comes to mind when he talks about Bedard’s level of competition. And this is his favorite moment.
On March 16, 2020, the Bedard Warriors face Winnipeg’s Rink Hockey Academy, led by their star player Matthew Savoie, who a year earlier had been denied outstanding player status by Hockey Canada.
“The enthusiasm was at its highest, remembers the coach. All of the WHL general managers were in the arena. It was a playoff game between two good teams, but in the end it was Connor against Savoie.
A year younger, Bedard then confirms why his chances of obtaining the status that Savoie did not obtain the previous year are excellent.
“With no disrespect to Savoie, Connor downgraded him in every aspect of the game that night. We won 5-1 and he finished with a goal and an assist. He had been dominant in all facets of the game, both offensively and defensively.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, their dream season was, like that of the majority of hockey players in 2020, hampered by the arrival of COVID-19.
“We had just finished warming up for our second game of the playoffs when someone came down to the locker room to tell us everything was off. It broke our hearts because we had a team that could go far, especially the way Connor behaved.
A few weeks later, however, the young prodigy received confirmation that he would become the first player from the West to make his WHL debut as an exceptional player.
Connor Bedard demonstrated all his know-how from his first skating in the WHL
Photo archives, AFP
After a successful first season in the WHL, Connor Bedard helped Canada win gold at the World Under-18 Championship in Frisco and Plano, Texas.
As soon as they learned that Hockey Canada had granted exceptional status to Connor Bedard, the Regina Pats showed their colors: he will be the very first pick of the WHL Draft.
« I had seen him play four or five times when I was 14, and what struck me was that he threw the puck harder than all the players on our team, » recalls the general manager of the Pats, John Paddock.
Excited to see the young prodigy join their team, the Pats will however have to be patient: the 2020-2021 season has been put on complete stop due to the pandemic. In search of a place to play, Bedard decides to go into exile in Europe, where he joins the junior program of HV71, in Sweden.
He will train there for several months and will play five games there, one with the under-18 team, during which he will collect a goal and an assist, then four with the under-20 team, in which he will score two goals and will collect two assists.
« He was only 15 and playing against 19 and 20 year old guys and you could already see how dominant he was, » recalls linemate with HV71 Alexander Suzdalev, who is now his teammate with The pats. He dominated every practice and every game.”
In February, the WHL finally announced that it had found common ground to allow its players to play games. The Saskatchewan and Manitoba teams will meet in a bubble, established in Regina, to play about twenty games.
An early start
The first meeting of the Pats is then scheduled for March 13. The team therefore begins to train again and from the first outings, John Paddock understands that he has a special player on hand.
“Since we were in a bubble, I was not around the team and had to watch training from the stands. When I saw Connor training, I came downstairs and said to our coach at the time, Dave Struch, through the bay window, ‘He’s 15 and he looks better than our 20s. , he recalls, laughing.
Come March 13, the excitement is at its peak among the Pats. At the Bedard residence in North Vancouver, however, it’s a little different.
“At his first appearance on the ice, I was so nervous, says the father. The players were all really big and strong. I then asked myself: “but what did I do?”
Nothing to dispel the fears of Thomas Bedard: from the first moments of the match, Connor’s teammate, Jakob Brook, rushes to the net and is greeted by the defender of the Prince Albert Raiders, a certain Kaiden Guhle. The latter blocks the way, Brook loses his footing and violently hits the band.
Result: broken left leg.
Fortunately, the minutes pass and, as he has done throughout his young career, Bedard demonstrates that he can compete against players older and physically stronger than him.
“John Paddock had told me he would be okay and looked good in training but I was looking forward to seeing him in a game situation. After a few appearances, I was relieved that he was able to keep up, get out of trouble and create games.
And that’s the least we can say: Bedard scored two goals in a 6-3 loss. He will end his time in the Regina bubble with 28 points in just 15 games.
Faced with the hatching of his young prodigy, Paddock then received a call from the director of player personnel within Hockey Canada’s program of excellence, Alan Millar. The Canadian team then prepares for the World Under-18 Championship in Texas.
“Alan called me and inquired about him. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to invite a 15-year-old player to this tournament. I said to him: “you want to have him in your team”.
Well done, John! Bedard finished second in tournament scoring with 14 points in seven games and helped Canada win the gold medal.