Around 3 a.m. on a winter Saturday, Regina Patz’s team bus arrived at her hotel in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Dozens of blurred-eyed teens, returning from that night’s game in Lethbridge, Alberta, stumble down the stairs and are finally ready to lie down.
Conor Bedard was also in that group. He was an indistinguishable 17-year-old if it weren’t for the fact that he’s Pat’s most talented player and one of the most anticipated NHL Draft picks in decades.
In the hotel lobby–as he and Patz found, as it has always been in every lobby, and always will be–a group of far more cloudy-eyed fans approached him for autographs. have been waiting.
“And even at three o’clock in the morning, Conor said, ‘I’m going to sign for these people,'” recalls team communications manager Dante De Caria.
Stories like this tell how widespread, how intense, and at times absurd the Bedard Fever that spread throughout the Western Hockey League (one of Canada’s three top-tier junior circuits) has gotten this season. exemplified. And there are many such stories.
While Chicago awaits Bedard and is poised to anoint the Blackhawks’ savior as soon as his name is called in the June 28 first-round draft pick, the city of Regina is right now in Saskatchewan. I just said goodbye to this boy who single-handedly built the capital. — Population 229,000 — He’s one of the hockey capitals.
“He created a mania,” said Pat’s coach, John Paddock.
Pat is Canada’s oldest junior hockey team, founded in 1917.
CEO Gord Pritchard says their fan base is loyal and sizable by WHL standards. Average attendance for the 2021-22 season was 3,958, ranking fifth out of 22 teams. Their alumni list includes Jordan Eberle, Chandler Stevenson and Hall of Famer Clark Gillies.
Nevertheless, they had never dressed like Bedard, nor had they ever experienced the global relevance that Bedard’s presence brought.
They didn’t quite expect it to come, given that Bedard was a star player in the WHL but was not an icon throughout his first 2.5 seasons in the organization. But then the Vancouver native exploded at the World Junior Championships in late December/early January, enthralling the Canadian and leading his team to gold.
“When he came back from junior worlds, things took it to the next level,” De Caria said. “It just kept getting more and more as his popularity grew. His face was all over TV and social media.”
Pat, who averaged 3,337 in his first 17 home games, drew 4,761 when Bedard returned to Regina on January 8. Bedard scored four goals and assisted two others in a 6–2 win over Calgary.
5,651 fans on January 13 against Saskatoon (Bedard scored 5 points in a 7-4 win) and Swift Current on January 21 (Bedard scored 2 points in a 5-2 win). ) attracted 6,499 fans. Pat averaged 5,664 fans in his final 17 home games.
“Wildfire, wildfire, monster, whatever you want to describe, the attention from fans and media to him and us has exploded,” Paddock said.
Additionally, team-based events with lines that stretched out to the doors of the Blount Center and community events involving underprivileged children were a huge success.
Every day, the team office was flooded with letters and memorabilia asking for Bedard’s signature. Both Paddock and Pritchard called it “too many to count.”
Meanwhile, their online store shipped jerseys to fans in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Paddock learned from a friend from Regina who works in Florida (who had ordered Pats’ jerseys for his kids) that people around the local rink recognized them as Bedard’s team.
And Pritchard noticed people in downtown Regina wearing Pats jerseys to work, the kind he’d only seen at the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
“For us there was no strategy for this and no other teams really had it,” said Pritchard. “This was the first time I saw something like this in the WHL.”
“We had to look at things differently. For example, if you thought 500 people would come to an autograph session, there would be 2,000 people. We had to adapt to that way of thinking. . [As in], “Okay, it’s not going to increase a little. It will be a big conflict. ”
Away from home, Bedard fever got even hotter. In 19 of the last 20 road games Bedard has played, Pat’s opponents have packed out arenas.
That remarkable record was highlighted in a game in Calgary on February 1. Then 17,223 fans packed the Saddledome (the Flames’ arena) to watch Bedard score two points in the Pats’ 6-5 shootout win over the Calgary Hitmen. Locals were little disappointed by the home team’s defeat.
“It was a big crowd, but they were all there to see one man,” De Caria said. “I didn’t hear a big cheer unless he did something. I never felt the energy was huge. Take Calgary for example. When one of the players scored, they were downright loud. No, but they cheered when Conor scored a goal or even when he made a great move with the puck.”
Still, large gatherings provided a unique experience for the entire team.
“Very few players on our team will be lucky enough to play in the NHL, others will go to the AHL, ECHL or college hockey,” Pritchard said. “They all got the chance to play in front of a packed building every night and they really enjoyed it.”
Bedard’s development since World Juniors not only fueled his fame, but also boosted Patt’s 15-9-2 record to qualify for the WHL playoffs for the first time since 2018. Bedard scored 143 points in 57 regular season games. game.
Consecutive 14,768 crowds filled the Sasktel Center and 6,499 at the Blunt Center watched the Pats’ season-ending Game 3 loss as they faced Saskatoon in the playoffs. In Saskatoon, Paddock ran into a family who had flown in from Michigan just to see his son meet the hero, and Paddock ensured it would happen.
However, the other groupies were more annoying than warmhearted. The Medicine Hat incident in the early morning was the norm, not the exception. Team meals at The Keg, the ubiquitous Canadian fine dining chain, never go unnoticed.
“Somehow [fans] I knew where we were going,” De Caria said. “When we got to the restaurant, there were people waiting outside. They did, but I had to intervene.
“And when we got to the rink… everyone was just crouching over the railings or waiting near the bus. Groups of 20, 30, maybe 40 kids. [would be] Shouting his name, yelling ‘Please drag your toes’, asking for an autograph, asking for a picture. ”
Eventually, the Pats learned how to pull the bus onto private property inside the road stadium and then unload it.
“It was a great experience playing in front of the crowd,” Paddock said. “It was familiar to us, but we didn’t take the excitement for granted. The security was just different. We had to take some precautions.
“I had to be more careful, sometimes calling the visiting team ahead of time and just saying, ‘I have some concerns.'”
Perhaps the most impressive piece of attention Pat received was how well Bedard handled it.
Although he kept the secret until the Hawks’ nomination was official, he was never upset, disrespectful, or disrespectful by any means. He often insisted on greeting his fans, even when Pat’s staff advised him not to do so.
De Caria recalled Bedard’s growing up as a Canucks fan, desperate to secure autographs from players like Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhouse for his collection. Now he’s in the opposite position, so he understands the feeling.
“The popularity, the fanfare, all the things that go with his greatness haunt me,” De Caria said. “He cares more about other people. He enjoys seeing the children leave happy and smiling.”
Even on the ice, Bedard’s professionalism impressed coaches and set high standards. There’s a reason he captained the team last season, and it wasn’t just because of his prolific scoring.
“The example he sets, his seriousness, his routine keeps him always ready to give his best,” said Paddock. “It rubs [on others]. For him, it’s more than words can describe. As the season progressed and he made it to the playoffs, thanks in large part to him, he spoke more than himself in any situation. ”
Bedard is often compared to Conor McDavid, but in truth, McDavid’s trajectory offers the absolute best-case scenario for Bedard’s NHL career. Interestingly, though, McDavid’s final season of junior hockey (2014-15 with the Ellie Otters) didn’t cause as much havoc.
De Caria suspects that the difference is due to geography. McDavid plays hockey in his League of Ontario and most fans on the circuit love Maple his Leafs. In Saskatchewan, the lack of an NHL franchise nearby is less desensitizing to stardom.
“I don’t think there’s ever been more fanfare and hype in the history of junior hockey players,” De Caria said. “You have a special status player [Bedard’s] It’s popular in western Canada and people go crazy for it. ”
So what’s going on now that Bedard’s reign of Regina has come to an end? Will it remain relevant to Patz? Paddock is skeptical. Pritchard is more optimistic.
“Those who may have come to the game for the first time this year to see Conor would have enjoyed not only the hockey on ice, but the entire game package,” Pritchard said. “That’s what we’re trying to capitalize on.”
His optimism is fueled by chance encounters, such as recently when a back alley neighbor enthusiastically mentioned season ticket renewals.
De Caria said he had many similar chance encounters at the grocery store and gas station, in which employees were thrilled to see the Hawks’ Bedard. It won’t soon be forgotten that last season, the surreal vehicle that took a 17-year-old boy through their city made Regina famous.
“It’s really great that he’s been a part of the community here and that a small part of his hockey career has been here,” De Caria said. “People here really appreciate his influence.”