In less than a week, the WHL will hold its annual bantam draft, with the Regina Pats making the first selection. The biggest name to watch for? Center Connor Bedard, the first player ever granted Exceptional Status to join the league a year early.
We've seen superstars come out of this situation before, from John Tavares to Connor McDavid and now Shane Wright in the OHL. The QMJHL had its first exception with Joe Veleno a few years ago, but the 'Dub' was the last holdout. Last year, it seemed as if that would change with Matthew Savoie, but he was turned down. Bedard finally passed the test and now we wait to see what his future holds. "It's pretty surreal," Bedard told me. "For the past two years it's been a dream of mine, so I'm super-honored they decided to give it to me."
The Vancouver native was in the car when he found out about his successful application, with agent Greg Landry of Newport Sports delivering the good news. Needless to say, the 14-year-old Bedard has never lived on his own before and given that his hometown Vancouver Giants don't pick until 10th overall, he's not going to be living at home next year.
"It'll be a lot different," he said. "But I think I'll be quick to get used to it."
Being the youngest guy on the team is nothing new to the talented pivot, however. Bedard has played up his entire hockey career and this season, he proved just how advanced he is. Playing for the West Van Academy prep team of the Canadian Sport School League (where many of the WHL's recent top-10 picks compete), Bedard led the midget prep circuit in scoring with 43 goals and 84 points in 36 games. He led his team in scoring by a 13-point margin and the second-highest scorer was three years older than him.
Bedard has always had a wicked shot, but his mission this season was to make sure he wasn't going to be a one-dimensional player.
"This year, working on my 200-foot game was a huge focus for me and I really improved there," he said. "My coach was really on me about that."
Like a lot of other phenoms (McDavid and Wright, for example), Bedard has gone through the Power Edge Pro system, attending camps run by founder and skills guru Joe Quinn.
"It's helped my game a lot," Bedard said. "On the rush, putting the puck through sticks; I use that a lot. Quick movements in the corners is another one. It's one of the most game-like systems, so it has really helped."
During the quarantine, Bedard has tried to keep as busy as possible, shooting pucks, working out and rollerblading. At least now he doesn't have the spectre of the Exceptional Status over his head. The process, overseen by Hockey Canada and administered by B.C. Hockey, involved on-ice scouting of Bedard's game, plus a significant off-ice component that assessed if the youngster was mentally ready for the rigors of life in the 'Dub.' That meant interviews with his coach, one of his teachers and Bedard himself, while the teen had to write a personal essay for Hockey Canada and its evaluation panel.
While Bedard doesn't have a specific NHLer he models his game after, he is a big Vancouver Canucks fan and loves the team's young core.
"I went to a few games this year," he said. With Quinn Hughes coming in this year - he was unreal, and so was Elias Pettersson. J.T. Miller isn't as young, but he had an unreal year, too."
It's a long ways off, but eventually we'll be thinking about which NHL team Bedard will play for. True, he's not draft eligible until 2023, but once he gets to the WHL next season, it's probably going to be impossible to ignore what the kid is doing. Might as well book a front-row seat now.