Back when such things were possible, Montreal hockey writer Red Fisher had a rule about rookies – he didn’t talk to them. The hockey-playing type or any other sort. You had to earn the right to a conversation with him.
It was a clever bit of self-promotional myth-making made possible by his beat. If the team you cover is always winning Cups, who cares who the new kid is?
But Fisher’s habit had an important traditional purpose – reminding that the people who’d been there longest were the ones running hockey.
We work it the other way around now.
On Monday night, the Connor Bedard show blew through Toronto.
The Leafs were careful not to mention him much during the pre-game. Why gin up your opponents?
But as Bedard stood in to take the opening faceoff against Auston Matthews, you could feel an authentic charge of electricity straining to get through the techno soundtrack. It was the sound of a lot of people reminding themselves they were on hand the first night he was here.
It wasn’t a modern classic, but you could see hints of what Bedard is capable of.
Midway through the first, he floated the length of the ice, turning Leafs into pylons and nearly catching Leafs goalie Joseph Woll puck watching. Even the Toronto crowd was a little disappointed he didn’t score.
It didn’t help that both teams were playing some of the most dreary hockey this building has seen in an age.
When Bedard is moving with purpose, he has the uncanny ability to slow down everyone around him. His teammates have more time to react; his opponents can’t catch up. Only the great ones have that.
On this roster, Bedard’s going to need more than supernatural abilities to win games. He is the beginning of a long rebuilding project that is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed, no matter how good he is.
That should make him part of a great continuum. The Chicago hockey team has as much history as any sports franchise in America.
But none of that matters now. It hasn’t won anything in (/checks watch) a whole eight years. So it is as if it has never existed.
These days, the careful construction of a pretty good team that wins more than it loses will not solve that problem. Every league is full of that kind of team.
What people want is the promise of an epic hero’s journey featuring the greatest player of all time (maybe). They want a first overall pick who has backstory, charisma, a sub-orbital ceiling and the ability to found a dynasty. Basically, they want someone who is imaginary.
Every once in a while, a guy like that does come along – a Gretzky or a Jordan. Since the public can only hold one idea in its mind at a time, all the can’t-miss prospects who missed badly – and there are many, many more of those – are immediately forgotten.
The guy you saw coming a long way off who did every single thing he was expected to do is so rare that multiple big-league cities in this country have never seen one.
But for marketing purposes, we continue to act like wish fulfillment is a science. You get the teenager, you sell the dream and you apologize for getting it wrong later.
Is that fair to an 18-year-old?
What are you, new? What’s fair got to do with it? If you want fair, get season’s tickets to night court.
Bedard has seen this role coming a ways off. You can tell that from the way he talks.
Another thing Fisher was famous for – walking away from interviews if he was getting clichéd answers. If he was still working today, he’d do more walking than writing. Bedard may have forced him into a brisk run.
Eighteen years old and he clichés like a man twice his age. Bedard is so bland that he ought to be watched after overdoing it on hot peppers.
Speaking recently with his own team’s feed – the safest of safe spaces – Bedard went on and on about how wonderful his new life is, without giving one single, concrete example of why that is. One hundred per cent gauzy generalities.
On his coach: “He’s a super good guy. Nice. Really funny.”
On life in the NHL: “We’re such lucky people that we get to do this every day. … We’re the luckiest people on Earth.”
On the whole Earth?
Bedard is already practising the hockey player’s oath: First, make no news.
It’s boring, but necessary. The days when future all-time greats were allowed to show up with some genuine personality are long gone. Nowadays, there is no protection and nowhere to hide that you aren’t being watched. A total rejection of the normal human desire to be amusing or interesting is the only way most people can survive this.
It’s the way of things, but it’s still weird. Chicago is a US$1.5-billion corporation that’s been a top business in one of America’s biggest cities for a hundred years. And right now, it’s fronted by an 18-year-old who just moved out of his parents’ house.
What he says goes. What he wants will, within reason, be done. If he gets angry (though Canadian hockey players never do), the building will shake.
It’s another one of those things that future generations are going to have trouble understanding about the way we treat sports.
Maybe Bedard will be as great as people seem to think he is guaranteed to be. That would be good for everyone who’s got a financial interest in this. But history suggests that the moment of greatest hype could be right now.
Among all the things Bedard has to do at the moment, I wonder if enjoying it is anywhere on the list?