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Profile of a Prodigy: Bedard could be first 'exceptional player' in WHL

The NHL is long way off when you’re a 13-year-old kid. But Connor Bedard looks like he’s on the fast track.
Dave Watling photography

Dave Watling photography

Almost everything Connor Bedard does belies his birth certificate, which incidentally reads July 17, 2005. A lot of us have concert T-shirts older than that. Yes, Connor Bedard is just 13. Barely. And yes, he’s being profiled in The Hockey News, making him perhaps the youngest player who has received such a distinction. And while today’s 13-year-old phenom could well be 2022’s 17-year-old fourth-liner, everything Bedard does reveals markers of future greatness.

He trains like a man, skates like a man, shoots like a man and has been playing with older players since he first started playing the game at five. He is mature beyond his years and is driven in the same way Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid were at the same age. So it should come as no surprise that Bedard is drawing the same kinds of comparisons.

One Sunday night in mid-October, he got off the plane from a tournament in Calgary and went immediately of his own volition from the airport to work with his skating coach. The next day was a day off from school, most of which was spent on open ice at the North Shore Winter Club before going for off-ice conditioning that night, followed by shooting a couple hundred pucks on the mini-rink his father had built for him in his North Vancouver backyard. “The big thing you notice is the confidence,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, who occasionally skates with Bedard in the summer despite being 11 years older. “When you go out with older guys, you can be a little nervous, but he was pretty comfortable. He’s a good kid and he works hard.”

Bedard is playing this season for the bantam prep team at the West Van Academy, where his parents pay $15,000 a year to have him attend school until early afternoon, then hit the ice every day with his team, followed by a dryland workout. And despite the fact he’s playing with players who are a year older, Bedard had 24 goals and 34 points in his first 10 games this season, which included a string of five straight games in which he had hat tricks. He has his sights set on playing for the academy’s under-18 team next season at 14, then hopes to become the first WHL player to achieve “exceptional player” status, which would allow him to play in the league as a 15-year-old in 2020-21, unless of course he’s beaten to the punch by a young man by the name of Matthew Savoie, who is a 2004-born player skating with the under-18 team at the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep Academy. All of this, Bedard hopes, will lead up to the 2023 NHL draft where he hopes to go first overall and embark on his pro career.

Agents are constantly calling. U.S. colleges are interested, and he’s practised a couple times this season with the Surrey Eagles of the B.C. Jr. A League. This despite the fact Bedard is three years from getting his driver’s license, five years from being able to vote and six years from being able to legally drink in his home province. It has forced him to grow up very quickly, with his 5-foot-7, 150-pound frame barely able to keep up. But there are times when Bedard does reveal his age. When asked about the Vancouver Canucks and what he thinks of rookie Elias Pettersson, Bedard says simply, “He’s pretty sick. His hands are crazy.”

Retaining a sense of normalcy has not been easy for Tom and Melanie Bedard, who also have a daughter who is a nationally ranked gymnast. Tom is a second-generation logger, and Melanie boards international students in the family home, so there is no sense of entitlement here. But the Bedards find they are constantly having to pump the brakes for a hockey world that wants a piece of The Next One.

Hockey is still a game for them and their son, and they want that to continue. Dealing with player agents has been an adventure for the family, who realize the day is coming when their son is likely going to need a professional to look out for his interests. Melanie believes the first inquiry came sometime around when Connor was 10. “To have him have to make that decision at 13, it doesn’t seem right because he’s so young,” Melanie said. “He’s a child, and he loves hockey. You don’t want to bring the business part into it too early, but it seems like you have to prepare. Even a few of (the agents) have commented on that themselves. They do feel really strange reaching out to someone when they know he’s as young as he is, but they also say it’s a business and it has changed so much.”

And Bedard isn’t the only one. In fact, he’s part of a cohort of young players that is growing larger and getting better and more prepared for elite competition all the time. There are so many avenues for a player to improve in this day and age, and players in Canada are being identified as super-elite as early as 10, when many of the best ones from around the world play for high-end teams in the Brick Tournament, an event held every summer at the West Edmonton Mall. Kids who play in that tournament receive legitimate scouting reports and have their statistics posted on websites such as eliteprospects.com.

They’re coming quickly and in bigger numbers all the time. In fact, some people in the hockey world believe there will be two players who merit serious consideration for “exceptional player” status in the OHL next season – Shayne Wright of the Don Mills Flyers and Adam Fantilli of the Toronto Red Wings, both of whom are bantam players dominating at the minor midget level. They could be joined in the WHL by Savoie next season. (Side note: When you spellcheck ‘Savoie’ on some computers, the suggested word that comes up is ‘Savior.’)

Alexis Lafreniere scored 80 points in the QMJHL last season as a 16-year-old rookie and has emerged as the favorite to go No. 1 overall in 2020. “They can all multi-task,” said Nick Quinn of Power Edge Pro, who has worked with many of the best young players in Canada. “In the past, you would see elite players who can do one thing really well. But the kids you’re seeing now, they can do it all. They can execute three or four skills at once, and that’s what makes them exceptional.”

Why? Well, natural talent has a lot to do with it. But these kids also have parents who are willing to make a huge financial and personal commitment to give their kids the best chance at success. When Bedard isn’t playing for the West Van Academy team, he goes to Twist Conditioning once or twice a week, works with a skating coach and does skill sessions with Power Edge Pro once a week. He played in the Brick Tournament, scored 24 goals in seven games for an elite under-13 team at a tournament in France, was the member of an elite spring team that won the prestigious Triple Crown of Hockey in Montreal last season and attended a pro camp with Power Edge Pro in Toronto.

“His commitment is off the charts,” said Jonathan Calvano, Bedard’s coach at West Van Academy. “Our first game of the year, we won 7-2 and he had two goals, then right after the game he went to another arena to work on his shooting for two hours. Other kids are going home to play Fortnite, and he’s going to work on his shooting for another couple of hours. That’s the difference.”

Bedard acknowledges he’s never actually played video games but does enjoy occasionally hanging out with friends to decompress from a schedule that is chock-a-block with hockey. Some of his best times, though, are when he and his friends get open ice at the North Shore Winter Club and are free to simply follow their hockey whims. “It’s just awesome having that because there are no coaches or anything to show you what you’re doing wrong, and you can just try new moves,” he said. “Obviously, games are my favorite thing, though.”

At the Power Edge Pro camp in the summer, Bedard skated in on an OHL goalie and put the puck under the bar as though it was no big deal. Quinn looked at former NHLer and fellow instructor Carlo Colaiacovo, who was staring in disbelief. “This goalie was three years older and here’s a 2005 making an ’02 goalie, and a good goalie, look bad,” Quinn said.

Those are the kinds of physical gifts that have so many people excited about Bedard and the crop of young teenagers on the horizon. They do not talk about the NHL too much in the Bedard household, and there is always that desire to rein in the hyperbole. Even Connor himself has a good perspective on his situation when it comes to thinking about the NHL. “It seems unrealistic, but it’s something I’m working toward every day,” he said. “If that could happen, it would be a dream come true.”

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