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Bright spotlight, hard hockey and awkward questions: How Connor Bedard handled his first worlds



PRAGUE — This was a star-studded IIHF World Championship that saw David Pastrňák airlifted in to help the host nation deliver its most stirring hockey moment in nearly two decades. It featured an MVP-calibre performance from Switzerland’s Roman Josi and saw two other Norris Trophy winners, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, team up to help Sweden claim bronze.

And yet, it was an 18-year-old from Canada who finished the tournament as his team’s 13th forward feeling the most intense glare of the spotlight over the past 2 1/2 weeks.

No one piqued as much international curiosity as Connor Bedard did here.

No one was more consistently in demand in the media gantlet known as the “mixed zone” that sees players walk directly off the ice after a game through a snaking line of cameras from at least a dozen countries before continuing for another 100 meters or so past radio, digital and print reporters.

Whether he’d just played a starring role in a game or a supporting one, it was not uncommon to see No. 98 as the last player standing in the bowels of O2 Arena with microphones in his face.

That’s where he was treated to the full international hockey experience, with language barriers occasionally resulting in amusing questions and differing social norms producing some awkward and uncomfortable exchanges, too.

Consider that Bedard had yet to even take off his skates after one of Canada’s early group stage games when a Finnish reporter asked him whether he had been going to the bars in Prague. It’s safe to assume he didn’t face that line of questioning after any of the Chicago Blackhawks games this season.

(To Bedard’s credit, he took the high road and said there was nothing unusual about his joining teammates out for a meal.)

After a group stage win over Finland, he was asked what it’s like being a “wonder child” with so many eyes on him.

“If you had asked me that a couple years ago, maybe it’s different,” Bedard said. “I’m grown up now. It’s not really the same as much anymore. I’m just playing hockey and just kind of living my life. I’m not too worried about any of it.”

The questions grew more pointed and probing as the tournament went along and his ice time was cut back in some of Canada’s toughest games. Again, Bedard stood in, saying he was surrounded by high-quality teammates and would do everything he could to make a difference with whatever opportunity he was given.

But his patience was clearly — and understandably — tested by those long postgame walks through the media bullpen.

That led to perhaps the most preposterous query of them all, when a European reporter reacted to some low energy from Bedard by asking, “Do you still love it?”

“Hockey? I enjoy hockey,” Bedard said. “I don’t enjoy answering these questions as much. I enjoy the game, for sure.”

Connor Bedard got a lot of media attention over the past 2 1/2 weeks. (Andrea Branca / Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images)

The fervor is understandable.

This is a massive tournament in Europe, drawing a worldwide television audience that rivals the Stanley Cup Final and features at least as many reporters on site. (Incredibly, Finland’s MTV reported that it averaged 1.45 million viewers for Thursday’s quarterfinal loss to Sweden — more than a quarter of the entire population in a country of 5.5 million people.)

Plus history tells us the superstars from the United States and Canada don’t typically make a habit of returning to several world championships, in part because they’re busy playing on teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but also because the tournament requires a player to sacrifice almost a month of his offseason to participate and doesn’t have the same elevated profile in North America.

Consider that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — two of hockey’s all-time greats — aren’t part of its “Triple Gold Club” because they never won the World Championship needed to gain entrance along with an Olympic gold and Stanley Cup.

They each played in one World Championship during their careers: Lemieux in 1985 after his first NHL season, when he helped Canada to a silver medal here in Prague; and Gretzky in 1982 after his third NHL season, taking home a bronze medal from Helsinki.

Sidney Crosby played in the 2006 World Championship as an 18-year-old in Riga, when Canada finished fourth, and didn’t return until 2015 as the captain of a stacked roster that went unbeaten while claiming gold in Prague. He chose not to go back even when his Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs the past two years.

Auston Matthews played one World Championship with Team USA before he reached the NHL, in 2016 in Russia, and hasn’t been back since. Connor McDavid represented Canada at that same tournament, winning gold, and has returned only one other time for the 2018 event in Denmark.

Bedard jumped at the opportunity to come to Czechia with best-on-best international hockey back on the calendar because he saw it as a potential palate cleanser after his rookie NHL campaign. He might yet claim the Calder Trophy after a 22-goal, 61-point season that saw him miss six weeks with a fractured jaw, but he said he wasn’t “overly happy” with how things went during a year when the Blackhawks missed the playoffs by 46 points.

“Obviously, this year was frustrating, but we learned a lot,” Bedard said. “I think we’re kind of at the bottom right now. You know, (we’ve got to) keep building up, keep getting better and eventually be a really good team in the league. That’s our goal, of course. It’s fun to kind of have that young group and keep building.”

It will almost certainly take another couple of seasons in Chicago, but suffice it to say, Bedard doesn’t plan on being available for international duty every spring.

Connor Bedard recorded 22 goals and 61 points in his first NHL season with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

The World Championship started like a dream for Bedard.

Playing alongside Nick Paul and Michael Bunting, he scored twice in a tournament-opening win over Great Britain, accepting a Tissot watch afterward for being chosen as Canada’s player of the game.

When he pumped home another three goals in the next two games, the IIHF posted a story on its website carrying the headline: “How many goals will Bedard achieve?”

Even for a No. 1 draft pick who rewrote the record books in national team colors at the 2023 World Junior Championship, it was lofty stuff. Of the 399 players registered to play in the tournament from 16 nations, just four of them were younger than Bedard: Norway’s Stian Solberg and Michael Brandsegg-Nygard; Sweden’s Felix Unger Sorum; and Finland’s Konsta Helenius.

When asked about his early impressions of the teenager, Canadian captain John Tavares mentioned that he saw similarities between Bedard and Crosby.

“I just love the way he carries himself,” Tavares said. “He reminds me a lot of Sid just in how he deals with people and how he is around the locker room.”

“He’s 18 going on 25,” coach André Tourigny said.

What stood out most to Paul was how unbothered Bedard seemed to be with all of the media and hype built up around him. His meticulous game preparation is already the stuff of legend in Chicago, and it made the trip overseas, with Bedard usually the first skater on the ice for Canadian practices and often the last one off, too.

During one optional skate midway through the tournament, he and 20-year-old defenseman Olen Zellweger — a former world junior teammate — were on the ice hammering away at pucks right up until Canada’s allotted 75-minute window closed.

“He’s just a pro,” Paul said. “You see him on the ice and you see how good he is and it just makes sense when you see him off the ice.”

Still, the World Championship is a men’s tournament, and it reached a level of intensity and physicality in the second week that Bedard would not have encountered during the NHL’s regular season. He didn’t shy away from the contact, but he absorbed some big hits as the group stage ramped up with successive games against Finland, Switzerland and Czechia.

In that environment, and with highly structured opponents, his elite offensive skills were neutralized. Bedard is a wonderful passer, but his shot is world-class, and he began passing up opportunities to deploy it. He registered just eight shots on goal in Canada’s final five games.

“It was a good learning experience, I will say, for him,” Tourigny said after a particularly tough game against Finland. “He didn’t have a lot of time and space. They were on top. It’s a team that really closes the middle. There’s no seam play. It’s really ‘dig in and go at the net and get a rebound and body position and be physical’ against those kinds of teams. It’s a little bit like playoff hockey for the NHL, so that’s a different game.”

On top of that, Bedard was whistled for a string of minor penalties — seeing the Finns and Czechs score power-play goals while he was in the box — and he was responsible for giving the Swiss a penalty shot in their group stage meeting by hauling down an opponent who got behind him.

That helps explain how he found himself listed as the team’s 13th forward and playing as few as three or four shifts in a period by the time the playoff round arrived.

Even though Bedard didn’t dominate when it reached the business end of the tournament, he still had big moments.

He drove into the offensive zone and helped create Paul’s goal during a quarterfinal win over Slovakia, and drew Swiss defenders in his direction before feeding Tavares for the equalizer with a little bit more than two minutes left to play in the semifinal. Then he was the only Canadian player who scored on Leonardo Genoni in the shootout that followed, bringing his dad, Tom, and everyone else watching from the team’s cheering section out of their seats inside O2 Arena.

Though Bedard is a player who shoulders outsized expectations, it would be unfair to label his World Championship a disappointment.

It certainly did not go as well as either he or the team hoped for with a fourth-place finish, but Bedard still finished fourth in team scoring with eight points in 10 games while averaging less than 13 minutes of ice time.

That’s not a bad place to start when you’re one of the youngest competitors in the entire tournament. For context, McDavid had nine points and Lemieux had 10 points in a World Championship at the same age.

The next time we see Bedard wearing the Maple Leaf, he’ll almost certainly be bigger, stronger and more experienced.

“I think just playing on that level is pretty cool,” said Josi, who made his World Championship debut a couple of weeks before his 19th birthday in 2009. “For guys like Bedard, just coming here and then playing on the bigger ice and playing worlds, where most games mean something (is important), right? They’re pretty intense right away. You’ve got to win all of the games. I think it’s a great experience for every young kid for sure.”

That’s how Hockey Canada viewed the opportunity it was extending to Bedard.

Rick Nash, who served as general manager of the World Championship team, acknowledged that they wanted to give him a taste of the international game at the pro level given that Bedard will be up for serious consideration when it comes time to pick a roster for next year’s 4 Nations Face-Off and the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“I think that’s what he can take away from here,” Nash said. “He can see how some of the older guys, the leaders that have been here before kind of handle these tournaments and he can gain those experiences and hopefully grow his career with Hockey Canada.”

As for the veterans who got to know Bedard for the first time during the three-plus weeks they spent competing together in Europe?

They couldn’t have spoken more highly of how he carried himself.

“He’s just a great kid,” defenseman Colton Parayko said. “Respects his teammates. Respect the staff, everybody within the organization. Respects the game.

“Really impressive from a kid that age.”

(Top photo: Andrea Branca / Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images)

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