Connor Bedard’s WHL visit causes Saddledome sellout
Matthew DeMille, Staff Writer
Waves of nervous excitement rolled through a sold-out crowd at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Feb. 1. A quick glance at the Saddledome’s schedule would show no activity for the Calgary Flames, nor any news about an A-list artist visiting town while on tour. Yet, 17,223 locals shuffled their way through the February slush and into the hallowed grounds of the ‘Dome for a simple regular season meeting between the Calgary Hitmen and Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
Electrified whispers and the occasional cheer coursed through the concourse before spilling down into the seats and finally the ice surface, as the audience not-so-patiently waited for the man of the hour. All this for Connor Bedard. The 17-year-old wunderkind hailing from North Vancouver. As it turns out, this was the second time Bedard and the Pats have visited Calgary this season. The first meeting, held on Oct. 7, 2022, had just 3,279 spectators. The Bedard hype had yet to manifest into what we know it as now.
The 2023 World Junior Championships is when everything changed. Along with collecting his second consecutive gold medal with Canada, Bedard, who recorded 23 points in seven games, took pencil and eraser to the record book and wiped out several World Junior and Canadian records to claim them as his own.
While Bedard’s name was already well established prior to the tournament, the cultish hype surrounding his domination of the international matchplays and now his nightly performances in the WHL has garnered a respectable following. Head coach, general manager, and vice president of hockey operations for the Regina Pats, John Paddock, has also noticed a clear change in Bedard’s game since his return from the tournament.
“If it’s [even] possible, [his game] is even more focused and more driven. He’s determined to play in playoff games with us and I think that’s the biggest driver in him right now. That’s what he wants,” said Paddock.
Now, fans across Western Canada are seizing the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Bedard live, before he enters the 2023 NHL Entry Draft in late June. It’s almost impossible to snag a ticket to a Regina Pats game nowadays, especially when the club is on the road. The night before their meeting with the Hitmen, Regina and Bedard broke Red Deer’s regular season attendance record with 7,287 spectators.
Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alta., will be the last two stops on the road trip for Regina, and both games have already been sold out. This is not the first instance where Bedard has sold out arenas while on the road, however.
In late November, Connor Bedard toured through the B.C. Division in Regina’s lone, cross-conference road trip of the season. This was the first time Bedard played in his home province since joining the Regina Pats in 2020-21. To say British Columbians were excited about his homecoming would be an understatement. They came in masses, nearly selling out every game in his five-legged tour.
Reflecting on his four-decade long coaching career, which started in 1983 with the now defunct Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League (AHL), Paddock admits he has never seen a single player be at the forefront of hockey discussion across North America like Bedard has of late.
“I think you’re seeing it right now throughout this swing and, I’m sort of guessing, but for the rest of the season. I guess that’s why you get exceptional status and it’s the first one and why it’s gone like this,” admitted Paddock. “Again, there was nothing like this. With the focus being on the individual player.”
Back in Calgary, Bedard spoke to local media about how eager he was to play in front of a rowdy Saddledome crowd. The largest he’s ever played in front of — or so he thinks.
“You feel it, you hear it and I think it brings some extra energy in you and obviously on the road they don’t like you as much, which is fun. And when you’re home they’re cheering for you. So, either way you’re kinda getting fired up for it,” said Bedard.
While Bedard donned a Pats’ road navy and red jersey, he was treated like the hometown kid by the audience of over 17,000. Most nights, a Hitmen victory is the final outcome all fans hope for, except when Bedard is the opposition. The main want from the Saddledomers — let’s make that stick — was to catch some first-hand Bedard magic, similar to the goal he scored against Calgary nearly a year ago. Toe-drag around the defender with a between-the-legs finish — forever a classic.
The Hitmen would get the scoring started in the first period with a deflection goal from Blake Heward, but Regina would need only 56 seconds to even the score. With a perfectly placed, top-corner shot, Bedard collected his 44th goal of the season.
While his lone goal of the night won’t make a top-10 chart this time around, Bedard was given the seal of approval from those in attendance with one of the loudest cheers of the night following his tally. Bedard would also tack on a secondary assist on the game-tying goal by teammate Braxton Whitehead, sending the game to overtime and eventually a shootout. In the shootout, Bedard didn’t disappoint. He capitalized on his attempt as the Pats closed out a 6-5 win over the Hitmen. Despite scoring, Bedard couldn’t help but criticize his shootout attempt following the game.
“I heard a bit of a cheer when I got out there and that’s pretty exciting. So I really wanted to score, obviously, and [it was a] terrible, terrible move, but I’ll take it and I was pretty excited that it went in.”
Banking another two points on the season, Bedard managed to extend both his goal and point streaks to 11 and 35 games, respectively. As a matter of fact, the last time Bedard failed to record a point in a WHL game was on Sept. 23 — the first game of the season. While impressive to almost all, the 17-year-old doesn’t think much about his streak which has been running through 97 per cent of his season.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much. I think there’s been some games where I had a lucky one in overtime and stuff, so there’s definitely been some close ones. But, for me it’s something I haven’t thought about. I’m just trying to go out there and play my best every game and obviously see what happens. It’s not really something I’ve put much attention towards.”
The same can be said about his spoiled chance at a point streak spanning the entire season.
“Obviously, I wish I did [get a point in the first game], but in the end it’s not a huge deal. It was the first game and it’s kind of funny the way it worked out up to this point.”
In Bedard’s eyes, it’s more important to focus on the future, not the past.
“On a personal level, I got to prove myself and that’s kind of my mentality still. You know, take it day by day and try to improve every day and everything.”
Just five months is what separates Connor Bedard and his path to NHL fame, yet he isn’t jumping the gun just yet. His priority remains with Regina and their ongoing hunt for a spot in the WHL Playoffs.
The Pats’ regular season concludes on March 25, while the Hitmen wrap up on March 26.