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The Next Connor: Hockey’s latest phenom went the distance to find a game in pandemic

Melanie Bedard couldn’t sleep.

It was 4 a.m., and her two kids — Connor and Madisen, aged 15 and 17 — were flying to Sweden in two days.

In the middle of a pandemic.

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“I sat up and thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” she recalled. “You think about if something happens and you’re so far away.”

Connor Bedard, the first player granted exceptional status to suit up in the Western Hockey League a year early and tabbed as the likely first pick in the 2023 NHL draft, had already seen his inaugural junior season put on ice by COVID-19.

The prodigious talent from North Vancouver, B.C., needed a place to train and play, and Madisen, whose first year of university was restricted to online courses, could do her school work from anywhere in the world.

So the family decided the pair would board a plane for Europe in the fall as Connor, the No. 1 overall selection by the WHL’s Regina Pats, continued to pursue his hockey dream with Swedish club HV71.

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Melanie, like any mother, had some reservations.

But those fears were put to rest when a text message arrived out of the blue from a trainer that worked with Connor — he was good friends with the assistant coach the teens would be living with in Jonkoping, a city about 300 kilometres southwest of Stockholm.

“It was like, ‘OK, this is a sign,’” said Melanie, who hosts international students at the family home with her husband, Tom, and knows a thing or two about concerned parents. “I would have had them go anyways, but I was just struggling replaying all these scenarios.”

With both the Pats’ and the WHL’s blessing, that journey to Sweden was just the first step on a long, winding road Connor Bedard has taken during this pandemic season to quench an insatiable thirst for the game he loves.

“New country, new style of play,” he said of his two months overseas in an interview with The Canadian Press. “It was really cool to get there and learn.”

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Once the jet lag wore off, Bedard joined HV71’s under-18 squad for practices.

“We realized he was too good,” Max Bohlin, general manager of the team’s junior program and head coach of its U18s, said with a laugh.

Bedard was quickly moved to the under-20 group, but still only for training. His days included two on-ice sessions and roughly five hours at the rink.

When the other players were in school, the centre would work on his lethal shot — one that pinged off the license plate of Melanie’s car so many times when Connor was younger that she got pulled over by a police officer because the numbers and letters were chipped beyond recognition — or take part in remote learning for classes nine time zones away.

“Everybody wants things in life,” Regina head coach Dave Struch said of Bedard travelling across an ocean to practise. “But what are you going to do to get it? What is the drive? He’s got it.

“He wants it, and he’s doing everything to get it.”

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Once the WHL pushed its start date back even further, the 5-foot-9 and 165-pound Bedard was allowed to play some games in Sweden. He’d register two goals and two assists in four outings with HV71’s U20s and two more points in another contest with the U18s.

“Always focused on the next thing … no matter if it’s a practice, scrimmage or game,” Bohlin said of what struck him about Bedard. “It opened up our eyes as coaches, as players. He’s a special kid, but in my opinion, it comes down to focus and pure work ethic.

“Super humble. He’s just so mature for his age.”

The Bedards’ stay would be cut short, however, after league and team were shut down because of a coronavirus outbreak. Connor and Madisen didn’t test positive, but after quarantining for 10 days, the siblings headed home.

“We’re really proud as a club to have had the opportunity to have him with us,” Bohlin said. “Maybe we helped him a little bit along the way.

“It’s a history mark for HV71 to have that kind of player here.”

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Back in Canada, but with the WHL campaign still up in the air, Connor eventually headed to Kelowna, B.C., to practice with a junior-A team. And then once the Pats got word their season was finally going ahead inside a bubble meant to keep COVID-19 at bay, his focus shifted anew.

“Watching him play (in Sweden) at a high level was really good,” Struch said. “It gave us an idea of where he might fit in with us.

“Not just a role in the future, but he might have an impact immediately.”

That “might” turned to “definitely” in short order.

Bedard hit the ground running for Regina, scoring twice in his first junior game against players as much as five years his senior.

And he didn’t let up.

Sporting jersey No. 98, the exceptional 15-year-old — the short list of players previously granted that status includes John Tavares, Connor McDavid and Shane Wright, the presumptive first pick in the 2022 NHL draft — would put up 12 goals and 28 points in just 15 outings.

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Struch said nothing seems to faze Bedard. It could be a great play, a highlight-reel goal, a missed chance or a slash on the wrist from an opponent. His demeanour never changes.

“He’s got a goal in life,” said the coach. “But he lives in the moment. When he comes back to the bench he’s ready to move on. That’s what a player in the NHL does. He’s doing that already.”

“If you’re focused on the past, you’re not going to focus on the present,” Bedard added. “Putting things aside and moving on is really important.”

Struch said while Bedard is supremely gifted, his success truly stems from the quiet moments away from scouts, fans and media.

“Everything that people don’t see him do is why he gets to do what he does,” he said. “His preparation, the way he eats, the way he warms up before practice, the way he practices, the way he cools down after practice.

“At 15 years old … remarkable.”

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The soft-spoken Bedard even surprised himself – “a little bit” — in his abbreviated WHL debut.

“I didn’t really expect those point totals,” he said. “It’s not all me … more assists than goals. It’s a team effort.”

Perhaps his greatest moment of the season came in his final appearance with the Pats before leaving to begin preparations to play for Canada at the under-18 world championship currently underway in Texas.

His grandfather, Garth Bedard, was killed in a car accident near Sicamous, B.C., on April 6. Tom, who works in the logging industry, and Madisen rushed to be with the kids’ grandmother, but Connor was stuck in Regina.

“My mother-in-law just wasn’t able to talk to Connor on the phone, only because she knew how close they were and she knew how emotional she’d be,” Melanie Bedard said.

“The day before his last game with the Pats they finally spoke and Connor said, ‘Grandma, it’s OK, I’m going to score for grandpa.’ And then he just does.

“Afterwards he says, ‘Mom, I just knew.’”

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Connor actually scored twice that game.

“He was one of the most outgoing guys,” he said of the family patriach. “Just a really good person. It’s a tough loss.

“If I ever did anything good, he’d brag to everyone.”

Connor Bedard is just getting started. He knows about the comparisons to some of the game’s greats.

But that razor-sharp focus, as it has throughout most of his 15 years, remains rooted in the present.

“Hearing your name in the same sentence as the guys I’ve heard my name in sentences with is really cool,” he said. “It’s not something I think about much.”

Because that would take away from his work now — even in a pandemic — and his lofty goals for the future.

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