EDMONTON — Really, Canada’s first two games at the 2022 World Junior Championship could not have been more different. The only common threads were the end result and Connor Bedard.
Canada’s opener was a tense affair with a Latvian squad that refused to go away. Its second contest, a stomping of Slovakia, was over before the first period was in the books. Step 1 in each victory, though, was a shot from Bedard less than eight minutes into the night to open the scoring. On Tuesday, it was a patented drag-and-snap beauty. Wednesday night, he finished off a wonderful give-and-go with captain Mason McTavish, taking just half a beat when the puck came back to him to make sure it ended up in the net.
Wherever Bedard goes, it’s the same story: Goals get scored and jaws hit the floor over the way this projected first-overall pick — who turned 17 less than a month ago — fires pucks.
“His shot is just super-elite,” says Brennan Othmann, who played on Bedard’s line to finish up the win over Slovakia. “We all talk about it all the time. I know a lot of guys with good shots, but that guy can really shoot the puck.”
Indeed, there’s no debating what this North Vancouver kid’s super power is. And while there’s obviously a gift-from-the-heavens element to any phenom’s game, there’s also the on-the-ground reality of what it takes to perfect it. Whether in his backyard or on the ice, Bedard has been flinging pucks ever since he could hold a stick.
“It’s something I enjoy,” he said just before the tournament. “If you ask any kid what he wants to work on it’s not skating, it’s shooting pucks.”
Born in 2005, Bedard is basically the same age as composite hockey sticks. His weapon is extra-whippy and he uses an elongated shaft that — whether he’s wearing Team Canada’s colours or that of his Western Hockey League club, the Regina Pats — allows him to swirl the puck around way out from his body before he decides whether to let it go from the outer reaches or, in a flash, suck it back in and let fly from whatever angle he feels gives him the best chance to befuddle the goalie.
The results are getting a little ridiculous. In 11 games for Canada over two World Under-18 Championships, Bedard has 13 goals. This is now his second attempt at the 2022 World Junior Championship after the original event was cancelled four days into the competition at Christmastime. Bedard, at basically 16-and-a-half years old, scored four goals in two games then. Tack two more on now and he’s got six in four outings. It’s by no means a perfect comparison, but just for quick-and-dirty reference, here’s how some other super-duper stars from this century fared at the first world junior tournament they played in: Connor McDavid, one goal in seven games; Auston Matthews, one goal in five games; Sidney Crosby, two goals in six games; Alex Ovechkin, six goals in six games.
So, if you wanted to get slightly silly about it, you could point out that Bedard is even outpacing Ovechkin, a player who has a realistic shot at finishing his career as the NHL’s all-time leading goal-scorer. Sure, comparisons to active legends are inherently exuberant, but just follow Bedard’s lead and have fun with it.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he says when asked about hearing his name mentioned with the likes of McDavid and Crosby. “I haven’t played a game in the NHL or even finished a full second year of junior, so it’s wild and whenever I hear that it’s definitely an honour.”
Anybody projecting Bedard to be in that class — and you don’t have to be the tin foil hat-type to do it — knows it takes more than one signature attribute to scale those heights. The more people see Bedard play, the more they realize there are layers to his game. When he’s not the triggerman, his vision and passing ability make him a more-than-capable set-up guy. What’s more, despite falling well short of six-feet, he’s in no way afraid to mix it up. Bedard is a stout 181 pounds, meaning he’s got a very different body type than the teenage featherweights the likes of Patrick Kane or Johnny Gaudreau would have been. During a pre-tournament game versus Sweden, Bedard got tangled up with forward Ake Stakkestad for an extended stretch in the Swedish crease. Near the end of the first period against Slovakia, the entire bench seemed to be jawing at him before a neutral-zone face-off. While understanding the best place for him is on the ice, not in the box, Bedard didn’t cower from anything, visibly giving it back to people verbally and standing his ground with anyone who poked or prodded him.
“When you’re that good of a player and that talked about, players are going to want to get under your skin,” says Canadian defenceman Donovan Sebrango. “He loves it and that’s what I love about him. He’s a special player. I don’t think you can really find a weakness to his game and he’s 17 years old.”
Perhaps most horrifying for opponents right now is the fact Bedard and McTavish have hit it off like a house on fire. With two games in the books, McTavish woke up Friday morning as the tournament scoring leader thanks to a 4-4-8 line, while Bedard has a pair of assists to go with his two goals. Canada, which had the day off Friday, will likely get its stiffest preliminary-round tests in its final two contests of this stage on Saturday versus Czechia and Monday against Finland. Guess which Canadian players will be the focus of pre-game meeting for those clubs.
“On the ice, no one can really stop them right now,” Sebrango said of McTavish and Bedard. “Their chemistry on and off the ice; they act like brothers. I don’t know if anybody can stop them.”