A casual fan I know checked in on the world junior hockey tournament that was under way in Halifax and Moncton this past week and wondered what injury might have happened to Canada’s No. 16.
Hit by a puck?
Nope … age. The rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation require that anyone under the age of 18 wear a full face shield in this under-20 tournament that is played mostly by 19-year-olds.
Connor Bedard is 17 years old. The native of North Vancouver and youngest-ever captain of the Regina Pats will not turn 18 until July 17, some three weeks after presumably being picked first overall in the 2023 NHL draft that will be held in Nashville.
That he will go first overall seems not in the slightest doubt at the moment. In seven games at the world championship he had nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points. The second-leading scorer was Logan Cooley of Team USA, with seven goals and seven assists for 14 points.
He also passed Eric Lindros, a previous certain No. 1 pick overall back in 1991, as Canada’s career scoring leader in this tournament.
As The Globe’s Cathal Kelly wrote yesterday, “Bedard is the NHL’s next big thing.” Guaranteed.
A year ago, the “next big thing” was Shane Wright, then just turned 18 and starring in junior hockey. Wright would certainly go first, so many said, but three teams passed on him before the Seattle Kraken chose him as the fourth pick of the first round. The Kraken said Friday that the youngster was being reassigned to his junior team, the Kingston Frontenacs, after playing eight NHL games in which he scored one goal and had one assist. The future will have to wait.
And so continues the endless debate on what has become known as “generational players,” those rare talents who transcend the game and become known as much for the numbers they wear on their jerseys as the names they carry on their passports: 99, 88, 87, 97….
“Bedard is going to be a hell of an NHL player,” tweeted Matthew Barnaby, a former NHLer active on social media, “but he will not be McDavid.” Who knows? Who can possibly know?
Bedard is not without his doubters. He is listed at 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds, but team statistics have a long tradition of exaggerating players’ size. He scored seven of his points against a hapless German team; he was kept off the scoresheet in Canada’s heart-stopping overtime win against a powerful Czechia team.
But he also showed a shot so uncannily accurate it seemed his stick blade was equipped with lasers. And he put Canada into the gold-medal game with a spectacular overtime goal in which he skated through the entire Slovakia team – three skaters, as well as the goaltender – before dropping the puck into the net as casually as if he were casting for bass off the end of a dock.
He is all but guaranteed to go first overall, but who will get him?
If this were back in the early 1960s, he would already have been tied up by some team that had wooed his parents. If it were the 1970s or 1980s, he would go to the worst team in the league, last-picks-first being the sole criterion for landing what might be that special talent. If the same rules held today the Bedard winner would be the Chicago Blackhawks, with a miserable 20 points after 37 games.
In those years where the prize seemed truly “generational,” the temptation to rig matters was impossible for some to resist. In 1971, the year Guy Lafleur was eligible for the draft, the Montreal Canadiens made sure they were able to acquire the first pick from the lowly Oakland Seals, then virtually gave veteran centre Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings, also a bottom feeder, to ensure the Seals wouldn’t catch the Kings. The Seals were soon not even in the league.
Some players are considered so critical to a franchise’s future that they can affect matters off the ice as well. When the Pittsburgh Penguins landed Mario Lemieux in 1984, it meant not only two Stanley Cups were soon being raised, but so, too, was a fabulous new arena. The franchise has remained rock-solid into the years of Sidney Crosby and surely beyond.
In 1991, the Quebec Nordiques believed they had such a critical resource in their No. 1 pick, Eric Lindros. The player they were calling “The Next One” (after Wayne Gretzky’s moniker “The Great One”) would, however, have nothing to do with the Nordiques and was soon off to the Philadelphia Flyers in a deal that involved several players, draft picks and US$15-million.
Two years later, the Nordiques were desperate to land “The Next Great One,” 18-year-old Alexandre Daigle, a dashing francophone star with the Victoriaville Tigres. The battle to reach last place and win the rights to Daigle became known as “The Daigle Cup,” with the dreadful first-year Ottawa Senators expected to win what the Ottawa Citizen had tagged the “Yelnats Puc” (Stanley Cup spelled backward).
Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut led Quebec media to believe that Daigle was key to the city gaining a much-needed new hockey rink, and it was said that he was willing to offer several of the team’s finest players – Peter Forsberg among them – as well as millions of dollars if only Ottawa would hand over that precious first pick.
The Senators said there was never a formal offer, which they would have refused. Interestingly, the Nordiques were gone from the NHL within three years.
That draft, as everyone knows, led to the end of the last-picks-first era. It was replaced with a lottery system that has all the teams that did not reach the playoffs given a chance – stronger for those finishing nearest the bottom.
Alexandre Daigle is not remembered for his NHL career, though he did play more than 600 games and ended up with 327 points.
His legacy was not to lead a team to the Stanley Cup, but the lottery system that decides where Connor Bedard ends up.
After that, it will be up to Bedard to prove whether he is a once in a generation or one of many in a generation of superior hockey players.