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opinion

Canada's Connor Bedard during a game against Austria, at the World Junior Hockey Championship, in Edmonton, on Dec. 28.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Long before I had heard the phrase “generational player” or could even spell “transcendent talent,” I had a front-row seat to watch one blossom before my very eyes.

Bobby Orr.

Yes, I can say I played against hockey’s greatest defenceman for years, but the name-dropping loses a large part of its clout when I add that we were 8 to 14, squirt, peewee and bantam in Muskoka-Parry Sound minor hockey.

Even at 8 years of age, you knew he was different, special. While we prayed for a puck to land on its edge on our backhand so we might get a “lifter,” Bobby Orr calmly flicked a forehand shot from the blueline that went in over the head of our very small goaltender.

Nothing could stop him.

In Ken Dryden’s 2019 book on Scotty Bowman, there is reference to Bowman, then a junior hockey scout, showing up at Huntsville Memorial Arena on Tuesday, May 15, 1962. There is just a single name in the scout’s journal. “Bobby Orr.” (Surely, I was sick or injured.)

Canadian hockey has produced many so-called generational players. Wayne Gretzky, of course, but also Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and a handful of others who early on capture the popular imagination and are, from that moment on, watched with a different level of interest by scouts and fans and even franchises.

What, then, to make of Connor Bedard? The cancelling of the 2022 world junior championship, because of COVID-19 concerns, has taken the spotlight away from this 16-year-old as quickly as it flashed on.

Only weeks back, his slightness (5-foot-9 and 181 pounds) suggested he might be too small and too young to play in a tournament often said to be for 19-year-olds. Yet, he made the team, becoming just the eighth player to play for Canada as a 16-year-old. That put him in the company of Gretzky (1978), Bill Campbell (1981), Lindros (1989), Jason Spezza (2000), Jay Bouwmeester (2000), Crosby (2004) and McDavid (2014).

Bedard is also the first 16-year-old player to make Team Canada from the very tough WHL. He was also the first WHL player granted exceptional status so that he could begin play as a 15-year-old with the Regina Pats.

Those who knew nothing of him, or little of him, could see him winning the coaches’ confidence through preliminary games and the opening game against Czechia, which Canada won 6-3.

By Tuesday’s 11-2 victory over Austria, the youngster had become Canada’s most dominant player, scoring four goals – one of them spectacular – against an admittedly inferior team.

His four goals tied a record set in 1983 by … Mario Lemieux.

And then, as if televisions across the country had become unplugged, his WJC was over. He was gone, but not from the national imagination.

No one captured that quite so quickly as Gretzky, who at the age of 10 scored 378 goals and 139 assists for the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. He was so small he had to tuck his sweater into his pants, a habit he carried through his record-setting NHL career. With national media attention before he was even out of public school, he was considered a “generational player” even before the phrase found its way into the mouths of every commentator in the land.

Béliveau, too, was such a talent. The Montreal Canadiens desperately wanted him to leave the semi-professional Quebec Aces and come to Montreal and play for the Habs. The Canadiens used every ploy they could to get Béliveau to change his mind and finally he agreed to come for a contract worth $105,000 over five years. “It was simple, really,” said Canadiens GM Frank Selke, “All I did was open the Forum vault and say, ‘Jean, take what you think is right.’”

For decades, the generational talents of the day went to the team most in need. The team finishing last in the league got to pick first overall. Montreal engineered a trade with the Oakland Seals, who would finish last, giving Montreal the chance to pick Lafleur first overall. Lemieux went to sad sack Pittsburgh Penguins and soon led them to the Stanley Cup. Lindros was selected first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, though he refused to play for them and ended up traded to Philadelphia for five good players, future considerations, two first round picks and US$15-million.

Alexandre Daigle was certainly seen by many as a “generational player.” There was simply no doubt that the junior sensation with the Victoriaville Tigres would be taken first overall. The Quebec Nordiques were so keen to take him – the 1993 draft being held in Quebec City – that they planned to build a new arena around him and let it be known they were offering several of their very best players in a trade for that No. 1 pick.

When it became clear that the first-year Ottawa Senators or the San Jose Sharks would end up in last place, and claim Daigle, the Ottawa Citizen began a feature it called the “Yelnats Puc” – Stanley Cup spelled backwards. The race to the bottom gained as much interest as the race for first place.

The dismal Senators won the Yelnats Puc. On draft day in Quebec City, the handsome, dashing Daigle was carried about the old city in a calèche seated by none other than … Jean Béliveau.

The Senators bragged that they had landed their man and many thought the team had deliberately tanked in order to claim him. The NHL investigated, determined this had been a possibility, fined the club and changed the draft to a lottery. Never again would finishing last guarantee the top 18-year-old available.

Daigle, unfortunately, did not exactly pan out. It happens sometimes – even to those who can’t miss.

All of which brings us back to Connor Bedard. He will not even be draft eligible until 2023, with no possible way for anyone to know which team might claim the player currently predicted to go first overall.

He certainly bears watching – if only we could.