Long before Canada won this year’s world junior hockey championship, everyone had already decided what the story was.
Okay, not that story. The on-ice story.
Whether he took hold of the tournament and began shaking or instead let it slip his grasp, these past two weeks were always going to be a Connor Bedard showcase.
Bedard is the NHL’s next big thing. Thanks to market efficiencies and visionary management, the league is now producing a next big thing every three or four years. By 2035, it will be up to one big thing every six months.
For obvious reasons, the world juniors needed something other than the tournament itself to be the story. Bedard, 17, was volunteered for the job.
He’s done it and then some. Bedard was involved in two-thirds of Canada’s goals throughout the tournament. So he wasn’t the best player on the team. He kind of was the team.
On Thursday night, Bedard was held without a point as Dylan Guenther had two goals – including the winner in overtime – and one assist as Canada beat Czechia 3-2.
God love him, Bedard even sounds like a hockey player. Other teens at the world juniors still have a little wonder in their voice. Bedard has already mastered the rambling, punctuation-free patter of an NHL superstar. It’s the lack of emphasis on any particular syllable that sets it apart from other sports.
“… play bad or good the next game I gotta prove it again I don’t want to focus on personal success here I mean I want another gold medal and that’s all I want …”
So what’s the story coming out of Halifax and Moncton?
That message was delivered by U.S. coach Rand Pecknold just before Bedard helped pull Team USA apart in the semi-final: “He’s a generational player.”
There you go. That’s the word everyone wants to hear.
We’re not yet halfway through the 2022-23 NHL season, but a dozen teams are already fully out of the playoff picture.
Remember when you couldn’t say the word “tank”? Now you can feature two races – the one to the top, and another to the bottom.
The downward title is the hard one to arrange. The Stanley Cup is there every year, but there are only so many Connor Bedards.
What would you rather your team do right now? Lose in the second round or blow the tanks and head to the bottom on the slim hope?
Put it another way – would you accept a one-year playoff ban in exchange for a one-in-three NHL-draft-lottery shot at this kid?
I’m guessing a lot more people than you’d think would, especially after these world juniors.
I’d bet a fair few of them would be Oilers and Leafs fans. Which is to say, people who should know better. Like all great cons, sports is expert at convincing their marks that while the present hasn’t worked out as they’d hoped, the future is promised.
One question that people don’t really stop to turn over is whether this is any good for the guy in the middle of it all.
Obviously, Bedard is about to get nice and rich. Wherever he lands (Chicago would be optimal; Columbus less so), he becomes a Prince of the City. It’s not bad work.
But this generational-player lark has not been working out so well lately.
Jack Hughes was a generational talent, but they’re still trying to figure out which generation.
Connor McDavid was generational until he got stuck in the mud in Edmonton. Ditto for Auston Matthews in Toronto. Remember Nail Yakupov? Yeah, me neither.
A couple of those guys have been individual standout, best-in-the-league types. But there’s been one generational player this century – Sidney Crosby. No one’s done it since.
You go down the list of No. 1 picks since then and the guy you’d probably want most is Steven Stamkos. Few people used the word “generational” in his vicinity, but Stamkos has had that sort of career.
Generational player isn’t scoring a bunch of highlight goals. It’s being in the mix for trophies for many consecutive years, and winning at least a couple. The NHL has somehow managed to separate the two things. So much so that the word “generational” is beginning to feel like a curse.
It’s possible the best section of Bedard’s media career – that time in which he is universally admired and immune to all criticism – has just begun and will run until October.
For at least that long, Bedard is perfect because he hasn’t played. Theoretically, he can roll into Anaheim or San Jose, wave his arms around and those teams are automatically good.
If they are, great. Some more waving and they make the playoffs. And go deep. And win it all. If after a few years the arm-waving routine has not worked out, well, that’s his fault. He was supposed to be generational, was he not?
Wayne Gretzky was the king of the generationals. He made his first Stanley Cup final appearance at 22. He’d won his second championship by 25 and within a couple of years won two more.
That’s where the bar should be. If we’re going to say generational, that should mean being greater than the generation that preceded it. Otherwise, what is the point of the word? All these guys since Crosby can’t be generational. They’re in the same generation.
If what we’re actually saying is “best,” how can we know that before they’ve played in the NHL? For the sake of hype, we’ve got things backward.
This isn’t to knock Bedard or what he might be capable of. Scoring seven points against the German world junior team does not mean you’re going to put any by the Boston Bruins. But who knows? Bedard may single-handedly change the destiny of whatever franchise he lands with. Based on history, probably not. But it’s possible.
For now, Bedard is generational because he’s scored a lot of goals against players who are nowhere close to as good as he is. That mismatch is about to change drastically.
It is fairer to say that Connor Bedard is the best player in his cohort of teenagers. It’ll be 10, 15 years until we have any sense of where he stands among a generation.
I’d still give up the playoffs for that one-in-three chance, though.