Connor Bedard’s first NHL season has lived up to expectations

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By Sohaib

Connor Bedard’s remarkable rookie season has been defined by confidence and offensive wizardry. But on Jan. 5, as he tried to knife through the New Jersey Devils defense while driving to the net, he was flattened by a hit. When the 18-year-old’s jaw broke, everything he had been building for was cruelly interrupted.

“It’s not fun not to play,” Bedard said. “I was dying to get back.” One week after surgery to repair his fractured jaw, Bedard convinced trainers to allow him to skate. Solid foods were out, so he drank as many soups, smoothies and supplements as his body would allow, desperate not to lose weight.

The Chicago Blackhawks arranged regularly scheduled CT scans. “I haven’t necessarily encountered this with a player before, but he was pushing to get checked by the doctors as often as possible,” Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson said. “It was a lot of, ‘Can I get in to see the doctor? Can I go again?'”

At one point Davidson told Bedard: “I’d give you my jaw if I could.”

Bedard researched players with similar injuries. He learned that Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara didn’t miss a game in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, with two plates, some wires and screws holding his jaw together. Bedard was incredulous that the Blackhawks wouldn’t let him do the same. After six agonizing weeks, doctors gave Bedard the news he was waiting for: He was cleared for contact.

Coach Luke Richardson was meeting with Davidson in his office about another matter when Bedard invited himself in — with talking points. The team initially wanted Bedard to get in a few practices before a game. Bedard believed he should play the next night against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, and presented his case for why.

They compromised. Bedard would skate the next morning with coaches to see how he felt. Bedard would take checks from Richardson, a former NHL defenseman himself, to test his tolerance.

“Once we gave that green light,” Davidson said, “there was a zero percent chance Bedard wasn’t going to play that night.”

Bedard was anointed as the next face of the league before ever taking a shift, and the fanfare surrounding his NHL arrival has sometimes felt astronomical.

“Everyone is asking everything of him,” Blackhawks president Jaime Faulkner said recently. “The league is asking for a lot. We are asking for a lot, the media, sponsors and fans. But he always responds with kindness, even when he doesn’t need to. He is referred to as a robot because people only see his intensity. But both can be true. He can be driven and highly competitive, but grounded and gracious at the same time.”

Bedard’s veteran teammates like Taylor Hall cautioned against overexposure as the season began — not out of jealousy, but protection for the teenager. “It can be a little much at times,” Hall said. “He doesn’t say that, but it feels like it is.”

But Bedard has handled it all with professionalism, settling in on two to three media sessions a week, mostly in scrum settings. Even though he missed his first All-Star appearance due to his jaw, Bedard showed up in Toronto anyway (and, again successfully, still campaigned to participate, passing pucks to players in the skills competition).

“The number of directions he is pulled in, the attention and spotlight he receives in a new city — it has to be taxing and exhausting,” Davidson said. “But he rarely shows it.”

It was full bore ever since he took his opening faceoff against his childhood idol, Crosby.

“Looking back,” Bedard told ESPN recently, “it definitely was a lot. Kind of overwhelming, but fun at the same time. I just tried to take it all in and enjoy it.”

Bedard has enjoyed individual success — leading all rookies with 58 points, despite missing 14 games with a broken jaw — even as his team is in a humbling rebuild. When asked to describe his rookie season, Bedard lamented the constant losing, but called it a year in which he “grew a lot.” The Blackhawks were the first team eliminated from playoff contention March 10 with more than a month left in the season. But Bedard has continued to play hard — and so has his team — despite the draft lottery paradox. Losing would improve Chicago’s odds for the No. 1 pick, and more excitement (and talent) around Bedard.

The coaching staff and players refuse to view these games as meaningless. They have an identity they’re trying to build, and it all begins with their star center.

“This is the NHL,” Bedard said. “We’re not playing for s—s.”

There are two truths about Bedard. His desire to be one of the greatest to ever play is rooted in an obsession with the game. And in the context of realizing those goals, he’s still really young. With a July birthday, Bedard has another full season as a teenager in the NHL coming in 2024-25.

Early in the season, Bedard curiously rushed home after games claiming he had to watch “his team.” Finally veteran Nick Foligno asked what team he was referring to. It was the Regina Pats, Bedard’s junior team in Saskatchewan, where many of his buddies still play.

“I was like, ‘You know you play for the Chicago Blackhawks, right?'” Folgino said. “But he still has that humbleness where that team meant so much to him. We give him the gears, ‘You’re in the NHL now, you can let the WHL go.’ But that’s who he is. He’s a fan more than anything.”

It’s not that hockey is all Bedard cares about — he’s dialed into other sports, following the NBA, NFL and its top athletes — but nearly every anecdote shared about Bedard begins with his affinity for being at the rink. “It’s all pure,” says teammate Colin Blackwell. “He truly just loves the game.”

The Blackhawks have a hockey shooting range at their practice facility, which they sometimes rent out for birthday parties. Bedard is in there so much, the team simply refers to it as “Connor’s room.” Davidson joked he would need to lock it to keep him out. It was a bit of fun, until Davidson got a text one Sunday while watching NFL games on his couch. Bedard wanted to know why the room was locked, and if Davidson did it intentionally. The innocent error was duly fixed.

Bedard’s veteran teammates have warned him about the importance of conserving energy, but some lessons need to be learned the hard way.

On one scheduled optional day, Bedard wanted to skate. Richardson thought Bedard needed rest, so he had the equipment staff hide Bedard’s sticks in the coaches’ room. Bedard is especially particular about his stick; his Sherwood features a 70 flex, its whippiness helps his signature release. “So he has a choice to make,” Richardson said. “Does he get out there with someone else’s stick?”

When the story of hidden sticks was relayed back to Bedard, he smiled — then implied it wasn’t an isolated incident.

The most widely shared Bedard stories involve the rookie staying on the ice long after practice. If a staffer tries to pull him off — for media obligations, the impending threat of a Zamboni or any other reason — Bedard will reply: “I’m working.”

Bedard immediately became Chicago’s best player. Put bluntly by an opposing coach: “He’s the one guy on their roster that you’re really game-planning for.”

“First of all, it’s amazing an 18-year-old can command respect,” Foligno said. “You can see how guys play him differently. Even some of the big hitters are like, ‘Do I want to be on a highlight reel for getting dangled or do I want to get a piece of him?'”

Regardless of talent, the ebbs, flow and grind of professional hockey presents challenges. Bedard had a strong preseason, but didn’t score until his third exhibition game — an empty netter.

“He was sitting there, kind of gloomy after the game,” Richardson said. “He thought he had a poor game.”

Richardson saw it as a teaching moment. He told the rookie: “There are going to be games when you collect points, and we might lose. And there are games you don’t love, but we win. So you have to be proud of yourself when you play well. And when you don’t play well, your naturally competitive instincts will take over and push you to be better.”

In junior hockey, Bedard was used to taking two-minute shifts, and sometimes conserving his energy throughout or letting his skill take over. Bedard said his biggest adjustment to the NHL was less frequent breakdowns in opposing defensive systems, so he needed to work harder to find areas and get chances — some magic he’ll inherently create himself.

A crown highlight this season was Bedard’s Michigan-style goal against the Blues just before Christmas. Wayne Gretzky just happened to be a spectator in St. Louis that night. “He’s been better than we probably anticipated,” Gretzky said on the Blues broadcast. “But I couldn’t do what he did tonight. This wasn’t in my repertoire.”

Bedard broke his jaw just over a week later against the Devils. He cut through the Devils zone when defenseman Brendan Smith stepped up and laid out a hit. “In my mind, that’s a clean hit,” Smith said after. “But it’s a big boys’ league out there. He’s a smart player, he’ll learn from it for sure.”

Foligno fought Smith in retaliation, though later told reporters he has a lot of respect for Smith, who plays “the right way.”

“As the games get more important for us down the road, Connor is going to have to fight through what so many of those star players have had to,” Foligno said. “When we’re in a playoff run, they’re going to target him a little more. Like that hit by Smith — people are going to try and push him into certain areas and pin him off. It’s all learning and part of being a great player. And all the greats have done it, they’ve learned how to play with a target on their back.”

Foligno said Bedard’s hockey IQ typically makes him hyperconscious of where he is on the ice, and who is out there against him.

“But the dad in me wants to protect him,” Foligno said.

In Blackhawks training camp, the team runs branding exercises with the players — gauging what companies and philanthropic issues they want to align with.

For some players it’s first responders. For others, it’s animal shelters. “What came through for Connor is that he truly cares about growing the game,” Faulkner said.

The team catered all of his off-ice initiatives such as appearances at the Boys and Girls Club, roller hockey clinics and engaging with mite players at the practice facility. Bedard loves roller hockey, and still plays in the summers in Vancouver.

“When he’s around kids, he’s very social,” Faulkner said. “Talks a ton, jokes a ton, kids just love him.”

Bedard is extremely close to his family. His mom, dad and sister have all taken turns visiting him during the season.

“It’s really nice having that support system and that normalcy,” Bedard said. “But at the same time, I’m trying to be independent.”

Bedard is learning how to cook. In September, he admitted a go-to method was FaceTiming his mom, putting the phone on the counter and letting her tell him what to do. He’s since improved — perhaps a new passion. Bedard is very conscious of everything he puts into his body. People close to him aren’t sure if he’s ever had a cookie.

Off the ice, Bedard seeks a quiet life. He’s formed a close bond with teammate Taylor Raddysh and his wife, who live in the same apartment complex. “Sometimes I’ll go over and just hang out with their dog,” he said. He’s also been to the Folignos a handful of times for dinner, where he hangs out equally with his teammate and his teammate’s children. The Blackhawks have surrounded Bedard with a mix of trusted veterans and 17 players who are aged 25 or younger.

“When I got here, I really didn’t know anyone, outside of camps or whatnot,” Bedard said. “Now they’re like my brothers.”

Bedard loves sushi and also developed an affinity for city walks. The typical protocol is wearing a baseball hat, but even still he gets recognized. “I don’t mind if people come say ‘Hi, how are you,’ that kind of thing,” Bedard said. “The fans here have been so supportive.”

It’s another example of Bedard understanding the bigger picture.

“Wiser and more mature than you’d probably expect — but also kind of expected with everything he’s had to deal with,” Foligno said. ” I know he has to put his guard up in certain aspects … But around us, he’s really able to be himself, let his guard down, laugh, and you can tell he’s most comfortable in that locker room environment with the guys.”

And of course, on the ice. That’s where the magic of Bedard really shines.

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