Connor Bedard is not the 13th best forward on Team Canada. Not even close.
After scoring a hat-trick at the age of 16, Bedard, the youngest player in the tournament, has shown to a worldwide hockey audience what made him the first -- and to this day, the only -- player to earn exceptional status into the WHL. And he's now just the second player behind Wayne Gretzky to score a hat-trick at 16 in the top World Junior Championship thanks to a four-goal effort in a 11-2 win over Austria on Tuesday.
"It's obviously pretty cool to hear your name with that guy," Bedard said about joining Gretzky in Canada's history books -- becoming the youngest Canadian to net a hat-trick by six months.
Former THN senior writer Ken Campbell wrote about Bedard when he was just 13. He was already drawing comparisons to Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid back then. Those sentiments have only improved over time, and he had to deal with lost time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it's like he never lost a step. Sure, he scored three against Austria, but there's a good thing we have years of Bedard footage to look over and determine that, yes, Bedard is indeed a special player.
Bedard "only" had 24 points in as many games heading to Canada's selection camp. But if you didn't know him before, here's a bit of background. Bedard earned exceptional status in 2020 after scoring 43 goals and 84 points in U-18 prep school action in Western Canada. He then won gold and was named to the U-18 World Championship all-star team with 14 points in seven games in the same year that he led the WHL in rookie scoring 28 points in just 15 games on a poor Regina Pats team.
So, it's not like everyone's declaring Bedard to be the next McDavid because he scored a bunch of goals against arguably the worst team in the tournament. There's more than enough evidence to back up the claims.
Canadian coach Dave Cameron said during that camp that he didn't want an all-star team. He wanted role players deep in the lineup for games that needed it, and that's typically what we see from championship teams in this tournament.
But that meant Bedard wasn't a lock and needed to force his way onto the team. So, naturally, he led the team in scoring with six points in two games against the U Sports select team and made it impossible for Cameron's staff to leave him off the team. But from the get-go, there was always the feeling Bedard would be shoved into the 13th forward spot, and that's where he started the tournament against Czechia.
Bedard had just 12:23 of ice time in the first, partly aided due to power-play time after skating in just 2:43 in the first and generating an assist. An injury to Xavier Bourgault and a suspension to Justin Sourdif meant Bedard would dress on the fourth line with Elliot Desnoyers and Will Cuylle to begin Tuesday's game. Bedard only played 14:33 on Tuesday but scored on four of his 12 shots, and nearly scored a fifth one in the dying seconds of the game.
"He's a great player, I'm not sure what he's ever going to do," Canadian defenseman Donovan Sebrango said before the tournament began. "He's got a wide range of skill and different tools he can use. It's definitely challenging. He keeps you guessing. He's a great player and he's got a great toolbox.'”
The comparisons to McDavid have been rampant for years, and Bedard acknowledges it. For a kid his age, he hasn't let lofty goals distract him, and he's focused on his career aspirations night in and night out.
"I'm young and McDavid is like two points per game in the [NHL], so that's definitely high expectations. It's definitely pretty humbling to hear my name in the same sentence as those guys. It's definitely pretty cool," Bedard said before the tournament began.
Just to compare Bedard, who has five points, to the other legendary Canadians who have suited up at the age of 16:
- Wayne Gretzky, 1978 - 17 points
- Bill Campbell, 1981 - 1 point
- Eric Lindros, 1989 - 4 points
- Jason Spezza, 2000 - 2 points
- Jay Bouwmeester, 2000 - 0 points
- Sidney Crosby, 2004 - 5 points
- Connor McDavid, 2014 - 4 points
That's darn good.
"Connor doesn't need my help when the puck is on his stick and he's in the defensive zone," Cameron said. "He got exceptional status for a reason... You can't be an exceptional player without having a high hockey IQ. He has that, he's very coachable."
The standards weren't overly high for Bedard. Young players rarely get top opportunities over players three years older in many cases. But Bedard hasn't wasted a second of his chances in the Canadian lineup, even scoring in the exhibition contest against Russia. So everything at this point is great, and anything after this is extra.
Bedard isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2023. Matvei Michkov is also highly regarded for that draft, but he's got a long-term contract to remain in the KHL. So Bedard definitely looks ready to go No. 1, and the team that gets him is going to have their franchise changed for the better.
And just think: we're seeing the start of something special here. And he can come back again next year.
“I’m 16, I haven’t really done much yet in my career," Bedard said.
Yeah, tell that to all the goalies you've victimized.