Connor Bedard navigating upcoming rookie year on his own terms

It's clear that Bedard is trying to create a name for himself of his own volition at the annual BioSteel NHL camp this week.

Connor Bedard is on the precipice of his first professional season, which is being met with the type of feverish anticipation reserved for hockey’s all-time greats.

Bedard joined assembled media on Tuesday via Zoom while taking part in the BioSteel NHL Camp for the second consecutive year. The 18-year-old phenom will join the Chicago Blackhawks for training camp in a few weeks, and though he’s already become a household name in Canada, his stardom will enter a new stratosphere upon joining the league.

Following a tour-de-force performance at the 2023 World Juniors, Bedard was universally declared the best prospect to enter the NHL since Auston Matthews, primarily because his shot release and velocity are unlike any prospect witnessed in the modern era.

He also has an uncanny ability to weave into traffic, with otherworldly puck skills worthy of their own feature film. Bedard scored 71 goals and 143 points in 57 games for the WHL’s Regina Pats, then added 10 goals and 20 points in just seven playoff contests.

It’s quite possible that Bedard is the busiest player in the NHL these days and after his media availability was pushed back twice Wednesday, Yahoo Sports caught up with the 2023 first-overall pick.

Connor Bedard hopes to forge his own path as an NHL, but expectations will be high for the prospect dubbed the league's newest phenom (Photo via BioSteel Sports Instagram)
Connor Bedard hopes to forge his own path as an NHL, but expectations will be high for the prospect dubbed the league's newest phenom (Photo via BioSteel Sports Instagram)

When asked about the biggest difference between WHL and NHL goalies, Bedard demurred.

“They're obviously the best in the world. There's a lot of really good goalies in the WHL. That's been good. Every step you go up, it's better and better and the goalies are no different.

“The biggest change is how big and how good they are. It's not easy to score goals.”

It’s not easy to get the NHL's next phenom to talk about himself, either. Bedard has clearly been instructed from an early age to remain guarded, a persona diametrically opposed to his free-flowing, inventive style of play on the ice.

Still, Bedard is entering the NHL on his own terms, even if there’s a natural tendency to compare him to his fellow namesake Connor McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner and the last uberprospect to command this level of attention.

And perhaps for the North Vancouver product, who has been a precocious scorer at every level, drawing regional attention as early as 13 and national attention by 15, it really is as simple as seeing the puck, shooting the puck, and watching goalies flail in despair.

Bedard was asked about McDavid nearly a half-dozen times during the Zoom session, and while it’s clear that he admires the Edmonton Oilers superstar, he’s trying to avoid the 'Next Connor' billing.

“Obviously, he’s on a different level,” Bedard said of McDavid. “You never want to say ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I don’t really think that mindset is that great. But I’m not him. I’m my own person and I’m my own player. He’s the pinnacle right now.

“For me, to get to spend some time with him and be on the ice with him and try to compete with him, he’s obviously unbelievable and you can barely talk about his stats because they’re so ridiculous but I’m trying to be my own player and the best I can be.”

It’s natural for Bedard to shy away from the McDavid comparisons, they’re entirely different players in their own right. McDavid was the easiest prospect of this century to evaluate because his speed is his defining trait — any untrained eye could see him flying past his opponents while bearing down on net.

Bedard is a plus-skater but he dominates opponents due to his shot, release and spatial sense, rather than god-given skating ability. He shares a first name with the league MVP, but it's clear he will arrive as the next superstar, the first Connor Bedard.

Though he clearly doesn’t enjoy speaking about himself, it’s not stopping his peers from raving about the incoming NHL freshman. Colorado Avalanche superstar Cale Makar said Bedard has aced his initial impressions.

“On the ice, he's a pretty incredible player,” Makar said. “You can just tell with his stickhandling and his shot. It's so smooth. It's going to be fun to watch in the actual game plan and stuff. I think he's got some good resources around him in Chicago this year — and I'm excited to see if he does.

“All his tools are pretty amazing. It's fun to watch.”

Makar said he hasn’t given Bedard advice on how to adapt to the professional ranks and stressed the importance of being able to navigate his first year with autonomy.

“He seems like a super dedicated guy when it comes to hockey,” the former Norris Trophy winner said. “He's been the last guy on the ice both days of camp. You can tell his commitment is there. He's going to push a team like Chicago to get better and better. He's an exciting player to watch and I think for him, even myself, guys can give pointers but you also want a little bit of independence going through it with yourself and seeing how you read and react to different situations through your first year.”

Bedard told reporters he hasn’t made any living arrangements just yet, although new teammate Nick Foligno has checked in on him throughout the summer on a weekly basis. You can sense that Bedard is in a precarious position, molded into hockey’s nonconformist culture and expected to act like a typical rookie when he, like Jonathan Toews before him, could be the Blackhawks next captain by the time he’s 20.

Connor Bedard puts on a Chicago Blackhawks jersey after being picked by the team during the first round of the NHL hockey draft Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Bedard appears destined to be the next great Chicago Blackhawk as the club enters a new era. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

He will be Chicago’s top-line center on opening night and his debut against Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby — the first prospect of the internet era to receive wall-to-wall coverage from a young age — will garner international curiosity.

Foligno and Taylor Hall are among the veterans the Blackhawks brought in this summer with the goal of easing Bedard’s transition as the franchise bottomed out while moving on from the Toews-Patrick Kane era. Bedard is spending the week with McDavid, Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares among other superstars at the BioSteel camp this week and, of course, he’s taking copious notes.

But don’t mistake Bedard’s admiration for his peers as a desire to emulate the league’s current superstars. He enters the NHL ready for whatever is next, and will surely blossom into his own as the spotlight burns brighter.

“I think if you’re worried about what other people are saying and what you guys (media) write about me or whatever, I’m trying to pursue a dream. There’s obviously pressure from the outside. I want to do well, I’m hard on myself. And I expect a lot out of myself. Pressure goes away in my mind when you’re doing what you love and hoping to play in the league I’ve dreamed of playing in for 18 years now. So I wouldn’t really think of outside noise too much.”