What makes Connor Bedard such an exceptional player

Sam Cosentino speaks with 14-year old Connor Bedard - the seventh Canadian player to receive exceptional status and first from the WHL. The Regina Pats have signed and will select Bedard first overall in the 2020 WHL Bantam draft.

No. 98. Remember that.

To most of the hockey world, skill is what makes generational players stick out. To some, though, what really sticks is a player’s number. Think 99, 66, 87, and of course, 97. All of those players are just as easily identified by number as they are by name.

Maybe it is no coincidence that a seven-year-old Connor Bedard selected No. 98 knowing that no NHL player wore it. Bedard will wear this number when he suits up for the Regina Pats in 2020-21, and he’ll do so as the seventh player ever granted exceptional status in the CHL, and the first one to be given that designation for play in the WHL.

The typically conservative WHL is so excited about Bedard’s arrival it allowed the Pats, who won the WHL draft lottery, to ink Bedard to a standard player agreement and officially introduce him to the hockey world a day before its annual bantam draft. This extraordinary and unprecedented move has given Pats fans something to cheer about after wandering through two years of mediocrity created by a post-Memorial Cup hangover. Regina hosted the 100th edition of the Memorial Cup in 2018 and would’ve missed the playoffs for the second straight season if CHL hockey hadn’t been stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Playing above his age-group, Bedard dominated the sport school loop with 84 points in 36 games for the West Van Academy Midget prep team. Bedard’s coach there was former WHLer Steve Marr, who has previously had the opportunity to witness first-hand the pressure young players face when projected as phenoms.

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Marr played in Medicine Hat with Jay Bouwmeester, who went third overall in 2002 and a couple years later he also played with Cam Barker, who went third overall in 2004. And just how intense the draft year experience was for a 17-year-old more than 15 years ago pales in comparison to what Bedard was exposed to as a 14-year-old in today’s shrunken world.

The sport school experience is something that first became popular in B.C., and is now starting to spread across the country. Essentially, hockey is part of the learning curriculum and this allows for a much greater bond between player and coach. The relationship is much more involved than the typical minor hockey coach and player experience.

Marr claims this set-up allows a coach to “teach in much more depth,” and that the biggest challenge he had in coaching Bedard was “making sure that he needed to live up to his potential every day.” Sometimes that meant challenging Bedard in practice, sometimes it was a gentle pat on the back, but mostly, it was making Bedard as accountable as his teammates despite being the only one who was chasing exceptional status. It required a lot of communication away from the rink.

Two occasions stuck out most for Marr over the course of the season. The first took place in Vernon, B.C. on Dec. 8 during a showcase tournament where West Van trailed POE (Pursuit of Excellence) 4-1 in the second period. It was a coach’s nightmare in progress. Marr’s team was down and out, had no energy, no puck-luck and had every reason to shut it down.

That’s when Bedard took over.

He had already drawn an assist on West Van’s lone goal, then scored twice more and added another assist in the period, but West Van still trailed 6-4. He potted his hat trick marker early in the third and dragged the rest of the team into the fight. The second line scored the last two goals for a 7-6 West Van overtime victory.

Marr, who’s been engulfed in the recent Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix, said it was a, “Jordan-esque,” type performance, where Bedard wouldn’t settle for his team having an off-game.

The next memorable occasion occurred in February at another showcase tournament in Shawnigan Lake, B.C. Marr and his staff knew there would be people in attendance who would have an impact on Bedard’s exceptional status application. They debated as to whether or not they should tell the player, fearing that adding even more pressure might impact his and his team’s performance.

They elected to tell Bedard, then informed him on how they planned to use him throughout the event. Bedard’s response was to ensure that his team was the top priority and not his audition for exceptional status. West Van went 2-0-1 in the tournament and Bedard put up 12 points. Marr thinks that event likely put him over the top in terms of satisfying the playing condition of the exceptional status process.

Of all the assets the young phenom possesses, the one that resonates most with Pats GM John Paddock is his shot. Remember, Paddock was behind the bench for Teemu Selanne’s rookie season when he found the back of the net 76 times for Winnipeg during the 1992-93 season, so Paddock’s more than qualified to speak on what a good shot looks like.

But Bedard’s shot was developed, in-part, by accident. Two years ago, Bedard broke his right wrist and over the two months he was out he worked hard on his top hand (left). The strength gained over that time, along with the typical routine of firing pucks wherever and whenever, have allowed him to score 107 times over the past two seasons.

Marr praised Bedard’s hockey IQ, saying he’s “incredibly hockey smart” and that “with the players in our age group, usually the last thing to develop is the courage to use the middle of the ice. This is one of the first things that Connor showed us.”

And remember, Bedard did this against bigger, older competition.

Foresight and puck luck played key roles for Bedard to end up in Regina. Long-term thinking employed by Paddock and head scout Dale McMullin had them out on the road looking at Bedard 16-17 months before the draft. Paddock attended the Pat Quinn tournament in BC during the Christmas break of 2018 and that’s where he met Bedard’s father Tom for the first time.

The next piece of the puzzle was winning the draft lottery. The Pats had two key pieces to move during the 2018-19 season to help hasten their post-Memorial Cup rebuild. Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry were dealt to Lethbridge for Jadon Joseph and a bevy of picks that included first-rounders in 2019 and 2020. The 2020 first-rounder was originally Swift Current’s and as a result, Regina had the best chance of winning the lottery, which they did on March 25.

The last element needed was to ensure Bedard was granted exceptional status. It was no guarantee. Sean Day’s slow ascension and Joe Veleno going 30th overall in 2018 made the process more stringent after the successes of John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid. Winnipeg’s Matthew Savoie was denied the designation last year and two others, Riley Heidt and Brayden Yager, were both applying along with Bedard this year.

There are essentially two elements that go into the decision-making process for an exceptional player. There’s the on-ice element (does the player project enough skill to compete at the CHL level?) and an off-ice one, too (will the player be able to mentally handle the rigours of living away from home and is he mature enough to handle school and life away from the rink?)

A partnership between Hockey Canada and the local arm (BC Hockey) put Bedard to the test. After his 84-point season the hockey box was checked. Next came the mental element. Marr was interviewed, along with members of Bedard’s family, his coaches and Bedard himself had to submit an essay as to why he should be designated. Other metrics were also used.

Knowing how stressful the process can be, Kingston’s Shane Wright, the sixth player given the exceptional status designation, reached out to Bedard during the process and offered his advice. In his media availability last week, it was easy to see why Bedard satisfied the maturity test. He spoke well and looked into the camera as he was grilled by national and local media types.

By all accounts, Bedard is skating into a situation tailor-made for success. The Pats are young and hungry and have built a culture of hard-work and determination. Acquiring skill has been the top priority and now they have a game-changer in Bedard.

“Connor’s going to get every opportunity to play throughout the lineup, power play, penalty kill and it’s exciting for us all,” said Dave Struch, Regina’s Head Coach.

No matter how things work out, one thing is for certain: there will be a ton of pressure on Bedard to make that No. 98 a memorable one in Regina.

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