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The BCHL’s brief brush with Connor Bedard

The 2020-21 season was unlike any other as the world tried to navigate its way through a global pandemic. There were a lot of fits and starts with many junior hockey leagues, including the B.C. Hockey League and Western Hockey League.

Back then, Connor Bedard, who was selected first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s National Hockey League draft, was the first player awarded exceptional status by Hockey Canada to play in the WHL as a full-time 15-year-old, but the league and his debut with the Regina Pats were on pause because of COVID-19 restrictions. As a native of North Vancouver, B.C., who spent the 2019-20 season at West Van Academy torching the Canadian Sport School Hockey League, Bedard needed a place to keep his skills sharp.

Locally to the Lower Mainland, it was the BCHL’s Coquitlam Express that was one of the first junior hockey teams to have Bedard join them on the ice that season. The league was preparing for an extended training camp that ended up starting in late September and Bedard spent a handful of practices with the Express as a guest shooter.

Bedard heads to Jönköping, Sweden

That September while the WHL was on hiatus, Bedard got the blessing from the Pats to join HV71 J18, which is an under-18 team in Jönköping, Sweden. He ended up only playing one game for the U18 squad but scored a goal and added an assist. The NHL’s newest star player also got into four games with the HV71 J20 team, finishing with two goals and two assists. After that, COVID-19 took further hold of Sweden, and hockey in that country was put on hold. As a result, Bedard returned to B.C. in November 2020 and had to quarantine at home for two weeks.

Enter the West Kelowna Warriors, who were skating in January 2021 in anticipation of the start of the BCHL season. On that Warriors team was forward Tyler Cristall and brother of Andrew Cristall, who is a longtime friend of Bedard’s. The two played together on the BC Junior Canucks at The Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament in 2015. The wheels were put in motion for Bedard to head up to West Kelowna to take the ice at Royal LePage Place to skate with the Warriors. West Kelowna general manager and head coach Simon Ferguson explains it really all came together with the connection with the Cristalls.

“Tyler Cristall was on our team at the time and said, ‘Hey, would you be okay with him coming to practice with us? Just to have him out.’ So we called Regina and talked to them. They were shut down at the time and we were doing some practices and had a few WHL kids that were around if their season hadn’t started. He was one of them and we had some scrimmages and practices with him there,” explained Ferguson. “Tyler came to me and asked if we’d be interested in having him out. And I’m like, “Well, of course.” so he brought it to us and we talked to the agents and they talked to Regina and that’s how it came together.”

Seeds planted in the fall of 2020

Bedard joining the Warriors before going to Regina was actually a conversation that came up earlier in the 2020-21 season, around the time of the BCHL’s extended training camp games. Ferguson brought it up to the Bedard camp earlier in the fall of 2020 but didn’t explore it too deeply.

“I had reached out to the agents at that point a little bit to see if there was an opportunity to play some exhibition (games), but they had already left for Sweden. You know, we kind of went down that road a little bit, and then when he came back from Sweden and everything shut down the Western League again, that’s when Tyler Cristall went to work.”

The hype around Bedard was real, even before he played a WHL game, and it’s that skill and determination that Ferguson saw firsthand while running Warriors practices and scrimmages with him on the ice. Ferguson describes Bedard as among the best players he’s seen.

“He’s at the top of the list for sure. I remember back to when I was 20 and Sidney Crosby came out to the Memorial Cup when we were in it and it was the same kind of hype. I remember everyone talking about this kid and everyone’s like, ‘Wow, is he that good?’ and obviously we know now he was that good. And I think there was the same conversation around Connor when he came out and I watched him. I think we had a scrimmage the one day and he had six points out of the seven that were scored. He was scoring on 20-year-old Western League and BCHL defenders and goalies.”

The goal for Bedard to skate with the Warriors was just to keep his legs under him while travel restrictions prevented him from leaving B.C. to join the Pats for their skate sessions. Ferguson says when it came to on-ice instruction for Bedard, they decided to keep things simple.

“The only thing we really talked about was some defensive side of the puck stuff when he was on the bench. Hehe sees the game at an elite level and it really was just kind of a scrimmage game. I don’t think anyone was going overly hard as well, but he’s got a shot that I don’t think really anyone else I’ve ever seen has.”

Bedard made an impact in a short period of time

In terms of having a future NHL first-overall pick who’s been called a generational talent at his scrimmages and practices, Ferguson mentioned that Bedard had an impact on the other players who were participating. “There was definitely a buzz around it and (being on the ice with Bedard), everyone realized what the next level looks like and how hard they are going to need to work because he works hard every day.”

The experience of Bedard skating with the Warriors for a few weeks resonated with a lot of people around West Kelowna. Ferguson notes that his presence definitely made an impression. “It was definitely interesting and people still talk about it today. I can only imagine being the Regina Pats and how lucky their group was to work with him for the last few years. I think he left a stick in our room and (it’s) one of those funny kind of COVID stories, I guess.”

Chase Johnston was the Warriors’ broadcaster and media relations director at the time. The experience that he and the rest of West Kelowa’s staff had around Bedard was a bit different than that of the coaching staff.

“The business staff and the hockey staff were in separate cohorts at the time, so I was very disconnected from what was going on behind closed doors and the hockey staff side of things. I got a text message from Simon indicating ‘Hey, just a heads up, Connor Bedard will be practicing with us.'”

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Johnston explains that the Warriors wanted to keep Bedard’s presence on the down-low so as to not attract too much attention. “Simon told me, ‘It’s not a big deal, let’s not make it a big deal. Let’s not make a formal announcement and just piggyback whatever announcement the Regina Pats have.’ We didn’t want to make it seem like we’re cheerleaders that Connor Bedard’s here. We just wanted to let him know that it’s a safe place for him to practice and that’s that.”

Refraining from telling everyone about Bedard

As a media relations person with one of the most hyped junior hockey prospects in years practicing with his team, Johnston had to temper the urge to get the word out about Bedard being at Royal LePage Place. “I know that I could have done a lot more with it, but it was ownership and the hockey staff deciding to not make a big deal out of it. We were doing the Regina Pats a favour by giving him a safe place to work out and practice. He also had friends on the team like the Cristalls, so it was a good fit.”

Once the Pats made the announcement that they gave Bedard permission to skate with the Warriors on Jan. 22, 2021, Johnston knew the media would reach out to get coverage. “Oh, I got inquiries for sure. Yeah, actually, we had the odd media ask to see if they could get an interview with him. Of course, it was video (calls) only at that point (because) we were in peak lockdown during this stretch.”

Despite trying to keep things hush-hush, word of mouth did get out that Bedard was in the Okanagan region skating with West Kelowna. “We did have one distinct fan, he was about nine or 10 years old and he’s from Kelowna. He lived out in the Kettle Valley, where Simon and I lived at the time and he found out.”

“He and his family reached out to me directly and said, ‘Listen, we’re huge Connor Bedard fans.’ Remember, Bedard hasn’t even played a Western Hockey League game yet but the kid already had a youth-sized white Regina Pats Connor Bedard jersey with his number and everything all ready to go. And he goes, ‘You know, it would mean so much if Connor could sign the jersey and if (our son) could meet Connor.’ I actually set that up where he would get to meet Connor, and it was a really cool situation where we did open up the door for the kid, people were wearing masks, and they got to pose with the signed jersey.”

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The physical distancing nature of pandemic restrictions and the fact that the Warriors’ hockey and business staff were working in different cohort groups meant that Johnston didn’t actually speak with Bedard during his brief time with West Kelowna. “I never got to speak with him, my first time speaking to him is when I worked in the Western Hockey League this past season,” described Johnston, who spent the 2022-23 season as the play-by-play voice of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Bedard’s skills spoke for themselves

“It’s funny, the only brief moment I had that was remotely near him was when I was talking to the other players on the team. I was talking with team captain Elan Bar-Lev-Wise — Elan was 19 going into his 20-year-old season — and he showed me a video of Connor just undressing him. Elan’s a great defensive forward too, good quality, third-line centre, a shut-down player, a 200-foot player, and here’s 15-year-old Connor Bedard dancing around him and scoring a goal in a scrimmage. I will never forget watching that video.”

“I said to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve got a 19-year-old that’s about twice your size and you just made him look silly.’ That is the most vivid memory I have of Connor Bedard with the West Kelowna Warriors.”

The WHL announced on Jan. 8, 2021 that it committed to holding a 24-game 2020-21 season. After three weeks of skating with the Warriors that month, Bedard headed off to Regina to officially kick-start his junior hockey career with the Pats.

Now, Bedard embarks on his NHL career and when his story is written, there should be a footnote to include the brief couple of times he left his mark on a pair of BCHL teams in Coquitlam and West Kelowna during a pandemic-impacted season that had never been seen before.