How Connor Bedard shoulders the weight of the hockey world with a shrug

ARLINGTON, Va. — Connor Bedard, in full Chicago Blackhawks regalia but with socks and slides instead of skates, is doubled over laughing in one corner of the Washington Capitals practice facility. He’s laughing so hard that he’s holding his stomach, like some hyperbolic mime. There’s no telling what he was talking about with Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Stanislav Svozil and Seattle Kraken prospect Ryker Evans, but it must have been pretty darn funny.

There it is. Proof that Bedard really is human, with human emotions and human reactions. Hell, he’s just a kid, freshly turned 18 this summer. In so many ways, he’s a typical teen, hanging out with his buddies and looking for a laugh.

“I like to be loose,” Bedard told The Athletic from Tuesday’s NHL Players’ Association rookie showcase event, at which 34 of the top prospects and rookies posed for their Upper Deck rookie cards, shot some B-roll footage and lightly scrimmaged. “A lot of your best moments and best memories are when you’re just in the room talking to the guys, just bantering with your teammates. That’s something I really enjoy, just being with that group and in that team environment.”

It’s there. It’s always been there. But that side of Bedard isn’t for you. That’s just for him and his friends, his family, his teammates. It’s not for public consumption. You get the platitudes instead, the cliches. Oh, Bedard is exceedingly polite, a very pleasant young man. He looks you in the eye when he talks to you; he speaks with poise and polish. And he says all the right things — which means, of course, he says nothing at all. Hockey 101.

See, most teenagers come into the NHL a little raw, on and off the ice. Not Bedard. The No. 1 pick is NHL-ready with the puck on his stick or a microphone in his face. The first reporter came sniffing around for an interview when he was just 12 years old, and he said he was “consistently” speaking in public by 14, so he knows the drill by now. “I’ve done a couple,” he says wryly. He’s smart and well-spoken, but he’s careful, guarded.

Yes, his living arrangements for Chicago have been finalized, but he won’t tell you which veteran player, if any, he’ll be living with as a rookie. “It’s personal,” he said. Yes, we all know he’s etched in stone as the Blackhawks’ No. 1 center on opening night, destined to line up against his hero, Sidney Crosby, for his first NHL faceoff, but he demurred and said he has to make the team first, that he sees “everyone as equal on the team.” Yes, he had to be secreted in through the back door of his Arlington hotel Monday night, a taste of what his future will be like if he’s even half the star he’s expected to become, but he shrugged it off, saying: “A lot of guys deal with that. I don’t really like to talk about that too much.”

At one point, he went full Nuke LaLoosh: “I’m just taking it day by day and trying to be the best Connor Bedard I can be.”


Now in private, Bedard, by all accounts, is perfectly normal. A good kid with “a good head on his shoulders.” That’s the wording that nearly everyone who has played with him, coached him or trained with him uses. Normal. But there’s nothing normal about his situation. The fame and scrutiny he has faced since he was 14, the staggering expectations he faces at 18, the hope of a franchise and of 10 million Chicagolanders riding on his shoulders — it’s all unreasonable, unfair, unfathomable. Bedard knows this. He knows what you expect of him. What the hockey world expects of him. What everyone expects of him. He knows how crazy it all is.

And this is how you maintain sanity in the face of all that insanity. You block it out. You focus on the work. You scroll faster, curate your feed a little more carefully, maybe even turn your phone off entirely. And you say all the right, boring things. Because the last thing you need is to crank that spotlight up any hotter by saying something, you know, interesting.

Bedard laughs when told that makes him rather frustrating to talk to.

“It’s just in interviews,” he says with a knowing grin. “People don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff. I’m not saying that I’m not a calm guy. I think I am. But I care so much about hockey. I expect a lot of myself, and I want to do well and help my team win. But when I’m getting asked questions, it’s just, you know, giving an answer. I don’t want to sound rude at all, but what the outside world and reporters and whatnot say, it doesn’t really have any effect on me. It’s great for the game to have (people talking about hockey), but for me, I focus on myself, my team and my family.

“Of course, I want to be a great player. And I have a lot of expectations for myself, a lot of pressure on myself. But that outside noise is something that you keep on the outside.”

(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Keeping that noise out can be a tricky proposition, particularly in the modern age. There was no publicly available internet when Mario Lemieux broke into the league in 1984, no Twitter or Instagram when Crosby was a rookie in 2005. Even 2015, when Connor McDavid exploded onto the scene, seems like a kindler, gentler, halcyon time compared to 2023.

How can any player block out the noise?

“Maybe not going on social media, not getting on Twitter,” said the Blackhawks’ other top prospect, defenseman Kevin Korchinski, who gets all the benefits and drawbacks of starting his career in Bedard’s shadow. “For him, the spotlight’s really, really big. For him to be able to block it out is a testament to his character.”

Then Korchinski paused.

“I mean, you’re doing what you love, so no matter what happens, you’re winning,” he said.

That’s how you do it. That’s how you keep things small, tight, narrow. A mom, a dad and a sister who have always kept Bedard grounded and levelheaded certainly helped. So did friends, coaches and teammates. But more than anything, it’s about the hockey. Focus on the hockey. Bedard is obsessed with being great, and that drive would have him on the ice working on his deceptive, multi-angled release all day every day whether the world expected it of him or not, whether he was trying to make the North Vancouver Storm or the Chicago Blackhawks.

The work is its own reward. And in the work lies peace and comfort. Familiarity. Normal.

“I’ve always just been someone who loved the game and wanted to get better,” he said.

It helps that this isn’t Bedard’s first time stepping up at a frightfully young age. He was just the seventh player ever to be granted “exceptional status” by Hockey Canada at age 14, allowing him to play junior hockey ahead of schedule. He made his Western Hockey League debut in a bubble, in an empty rink, during the 2020-21 season. And all he did was post 12 goals and 16 assists in 15 games. The next season, 51 goals and 49 assists. Last season, 71 goals and 72 assists, followed by a 20-point playoff series.

Ludicrous stuff.

“I had really good leaders on my team, and the guys made me comfortable, our coaches and everything,” he said. “So I was able to just go out and play. It was a lot of fun.”

There are veteran leaders on the Blackhawks, too. Nick Foligno has been in regular contact with him. Taylor Hall, his likely left wing on the top line, reached out. Even Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews called him, and they’re not even Blackhawks anymore. They might be the only two people in the world who know exactly what Bedard is feeling and exactly what he’s in for. And they had the same general message for Bedard: Enjoy it, and never take it for granted, because there’s nothing in the world like playing hockey in Chicago, especially when you’re winning.

Bedard called it “awesome” to talk to Toews. He said it was “incredible” to talk to Kane, a player of similar size and skill, but he was careful not to gush too hard.

“In the end, he’s a human being like the rest of us,” Bedard said. “But what he’s done for the NHL and what he’s done in his career — he’s one of the best players to ever play hockey. So for him to reach out is incredible. I mean, I’m just some young kid.”

Of course, Bedard is more than that. He’s a generational talent, a franchise savior, a future statue at the United Center, and any other breathless thing you want to heap on top of him. He knows that. He knows all that is there. But this is how you handle it. This is how you bear it all. You remember that it’s just hockey. You remember that you’re just some young kid.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really understand how much stuff outside of hockey there is,” he said. “But for me, I feel like I’m the same person I was when I was 5 or 6 years old, lacing them up and just playing. All that other stuff, it’s something that comes with it all. But you don’t really notice it too much because when it comes down to it, you’re doing what you love.”

And you pretend the rest is normal.

(Top photo: Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

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