Elite teenage hockey players wearing suits, ties and anxious looks were sitting in the stands at Bell Centre and waiting for their names to be called at the NHL draft Thursday night. In a departure from most drafts, no prospect had established himself as the best in his year, and rumours and speculation swirled. The last time there had been any real suspense around the first overall pick dated back to the wooden-stick era.
Another teenager was wearing an indigo golf shirt, matching slacks and a toothy, relaxed smile in Row B of Section 103. Connor Bedard, a centre with the Regina Pats, scored 51 goals in 62 games, the second most in the Western Hockey League last season.
For four hours Bedard watched as 32 prospects filed to the stage and pulled team sweaters over their heads. Six he outplayed in the WHL, others he eclipsed in international play, yet his name was not called. It wasn’t a matter of doubts about his game or character. The only reason he remained in the stands could be found on his driving learner’s permit: He will not celebrate his 17th birthday until later this month and thus is not yet eligible for the draft.
Bedard didn’t just happen to be in the neighbourhood and score a ticket to the event. Earlier this week he travelled from his home in North Vancouver, British Columbia, for a dry run at what awaits him a year from now.
“I wanted to see what the process is like, and I think it’s definitely been a really good experience,” Bedard said. Referring to players born in 2004, he added: “These are the ‘04 group that I played with coming up in minor hockey. Obviously, I hope to be in that same position next year.”
Doubtlessly he will. Bedard is the prospective first overall pick in the 2023 NHL entry draft, but that is only the start. He has been designated, labelled and maybe even anointed as hockey’s next generational player.
Many of the game’s insiders would tell you that the “generational” tag has become a cliché, but not in this case. They see him as in line with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, first overall selections in the 2005 and 2015 drafts. Two years ago, Bedard became the first player in WHL history to be granted exceptional-player status, which permitted him at age 15 to play in the league against players as old as 20.
John Paddock, the Regina coach, suggested that Bedard is an improvement on two recent winners of the Hart Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s MVP. “He’s like Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov, except he can wind up being more of a goal scorer than either of them,” said Paddock, a former head coach of the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about coaching a talent like his.”
Craig Button, a former NHL general manager and scout, compared Bedard to Steve Yzerman, a Hall of Famer who captained the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups. “Connor has all the skill, but what impresses me is his intensity like Stevie Y’s, a killer’s instinct,” said Button, who tracks the entry draft and junior hockey for the TSN Network in Canada.
Such talk could easily turn a 16-year-old’s head, but Bedard is seemingly inured to it. He has being hearing it at least since he was 12, the first year he started skating with NHL players in their off-season workouts. “I skated with them once that summer and was that annoying little kid out there,” he said. “When I was 14, I was skating with them consistently, pretty much every day they had ice.”
Soon, Vancouver-based pros like Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Edmonton, the first overall pick in 2011, would text Bedard when rounding up players for workouts and scrimmages. Those sessions gave Bedard a sense of the skill and speed of the NHL game, but the business side of the league, particularly pre-draft interviews, stresses a lot of talented teenagers.
So, Newport Sports Management, the agency representing Bedard, set up interviews for its client with three NHL general managers: Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins, Kyle Davidson of the Chicago Blackhawks and Yzerman, now in the Red Wings’ front office.
For Bedard, the most intense was a one-on-one interview with Yzerman. “We talked for 45 minutes, and he asked a lot of questions,” Bedard said. “By the end it probably became more of a conversation than an interview. I asked him some questions and he gave me some advice about the game and the league.”
It might look as if the general managers Bedard sat down with were gathering intelligence for next year’s draft, but “don’t read anything into it about the GMs he spoke to,” said Don Meehan, Newport’s founder. “They just happened to be the ones staying at our hotel. We asked if they’d take the time to talk to Connor.”
Newport has done this before. Meehan pointed to 2007, when the agency brought Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty to the draft a year early. “It was pretty much the same process with Steven and Drew,” Meehan said. “We think it’s a good idea to let exceptional players experience the draft and get accustomed to the event, talking with the media and executives.”
It might be hard to imagine that an interview could influence a prospect’s draft capital. That a regrettable quote could come back to jeopardize a professional career not yet under way. Yet that is exactly what played out at the draft that Bedard watched Thursday night.
At the start of the 2021-22 season Shane Wright, a centre with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, was projected as the favourite to be selected first overall. Wright had a solid but unspectacular season, and his stock began to drop with NHL scouts. Yet it was not a bad game or slump that opened Wright up to criticism and even ridicule – it was a regrettable comment in an interview with the NHL’s official website.
“I think that based on all the work this past year and in my past as well, I think that I deserve to be the first overall pick,” Wright told NHL.com in May. “I deserve to have that honour and I believe that I am the best player in this draft and believe that I should be taken first overall.”
Said one scout: “It’s him saying ‘deserve’ that really was a red flag. Just a wrong word really.”
On Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens passed over Wright and selected left winger Juraj Slafkovsky of Slovakia with the first pick. In an interview with the Sportsnet television network minutes after the selection, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes said an interview with Slafkovsky the day before the draft sealed the team’s decision. “We were definitely leaning toward Juraj but we wanted to meet him one more time,” Hughes said.
A chastened Wright wound up falling to the Seattle Kraken with the fourth pick.
Given Bedard’s performances to this point, the odds seem long that the top of next year’s draft will swing on a snappy answer in an interview with a prospect. Back in North Vancouver, the teenager’s father, Tom Bedard, a logger, believed his son would score in his team interviews like he has on the ice.
“Connor was the youngest kid in the room for a long time and he’s pretty soft-spoken by nature,” Tom Bedard said. “In the last year or so he’s become more comfortable being vocal and saying what’s on his mind, just part of his maturation process.”
Paddock, the Regina coach, concurred: “There’s no aspect of the game that doesn’t point to him being a star in the league, and that includes the way he handles himself off the ice. He works hard, figures things out and just finds new ways to impress you.”
The fortunes of draft-eligible players soared or cratered in Montreal this week, as Bedard worked on details of the NHL game that plays out off the ice.