Walking the same path as past phenoms, Bedard etches his name next to Gretzky’s

Canada's Connor Bedard (16) skates against Austria during third period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Tuesday, December 28, 2021. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — The 1977 footage of a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky at the Montreal Forum World Juniors is Zapruder-like, as he skates around those faceless “Czechoslovakians” like a Baryshnikov among bar stools. That grainy video was captured so long ago, his opponents that night have changed the name of their national team not once but twice in the years since.

The phenoms have followed hence, through the same World Junior turnstile to NHL stardom. Mario Lemieux, to Sidney Crosby, to Connor McDavid, and perhaps now to young Connor Bedard, the only 16-year-old to score a hat trick at the World Junior tournament since Gretzky himself.

Bedard, of the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats, feasted Wednesday on an overmatched Austrian team that had no answer for the five-foot-nine dynamo, scoring four times. Afterwards he described his performance the way each of the aforementioned would have, as having been lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

“Most of those (goals), I’m kind of just in front of the net, getting a stick on something. It was pretty fortunate,” Bedard said after the game. “Everyone makes the game easier, when you’re playing here with these guys.”

Bedard was, of course, the WHL’s first ever “Exceptional Player,” given the special dispensation to be allowed into the league at age 15 — because he was that good. He is one of only seven in junior hockey history to receive the honour, a list that includes such names as John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, McDavid and World Junior teammate Shane Wright.

But lest you derive that a decision made on a player at 15 years old is a guarantee of NHL stardom, you should know that one Sean Day — granted Exceptional Player status with the Mississauga Steelheads back in 2013 — made his NHL debut on Tuesday night with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the age of 23, after five OHL seasons and another three-plus seasons in the AHL.

Bedard tied the Canadian record with four goals in that 11-2 win over Austria Tuesday, passing on a last second two-on-one rather than shoot for a fifth goal.

“It’s cool to hear your name and one of, if not the best player to ever play the game,” he said of Gretzky. “But it’s one game. I don’t think I’ll be getting 2,800 points in the NHL.”

Canadian defenceman Owen Power had a hat trick in the opener, a 6-3 win over Czechia. At six-foot-five, and with a command of the game that far exceeds his years, it’s easy to envision Power as a 1000-game NHL blue-liner, wearing a letter and winning playoff series for years to come.

Bedard, however, is different.

At just 16, he possesses skills — but not size — that stand up to any player in the tournament. He is Patrick Kane-like, small at five-foot-nine and 180 lbs., but with time to grow. He began the tournament as head coach Dave Cameron’s 13th forward, but was on Canada’s first line by the end of Game 1.

He started the Austria game on the fourth line, then scored four times.

McDavid is the most recent comparable, having skated in the 2014 World Juniors in Sweden as a 16-year-old. Like Bedard, his legend was already launched when McDavid joined Team Canada, but his time in Sweden — under head coach Brent Sutter — did not live up to what Bedard has enjoyed thus far in Edmonton.

“We had a good opening game, the team won and our line was good. Then we played the Czechs, and I took a couple of penalties and found myself as the 13th forward. I was the 13th forward the rest of the tournament,” McDavid told me for the book Road to Gold, The Untold Story of Canada at the World Juniors. “I definitely had … an experience where I wasn’t a top line player. I still played power play and whatnot, but I wasn’t as relied on there.

“I’m not going to lie. I didn’t enjoy my first World Junior experience. I didn’t have a lot of fun with it,” he said.

McDavid took some abuse on social media, a lesson learned.

“I just remember that it can be a little bit overwhelming at that age,” McDavid said. “You’re so young, and stepping into your first games on the big stage. With that comes the social media, and lots of attention. For me and our team that year … there was lots of negativity around that. I remember it being difficult.

“I would say for (Bedard) to just go into it and have fun. Maybe stay off of social media a bit through that time, because it can be a little bit negative.”

Don’t worry, said Bedard. He won’t be reading the internet dispatches on Wednesday morning, most of which — like this one — will be anointing him as a future superstar.

“I’m trying not to get too high on myself. I won’t read much,” he said. “We play again tomorrow (against Germany). The focus has already shifted.”

Team Canada is 2-0 here and well in control. Mason McTavish is showing himself to be the best player on this team, though watching Bedard play, you can already envision a ‘C’ on his chest next Christmas when the tournament shifts to Omsk, the Siberian destination that might not be any colder than the deep minus-20s gripping Edmonton this Christmas.

“I like the words ‘Exceptional Status’… He’s an exceptional player,” concluded Cameron. “What I like about my short time with Connor is how receptive he is to coaching. I assume (Pats GM and head coach) John Paddock would tell you the same thing. You have to let those exceptional players play to their strengths, but mature their game away from the puck. Connor has made great strides in the short time I’ve had him.”

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