Before the Blackhawks, Connor Bedard’s fame transformed the Regina Pats: ‘He created a mania’

Bedard’s exploding fame this past season made his junior team in Regina, Saskatchewan, one of the centers of the hockey universe. The enormous attention was both thrilling and overwhelming for team employees. “There was no playbook for this,” CEO Gord Pritchard said.

SHARE Before the Blackhawks, Connor Bedard’s fame transformed the Regina Pats: ‘He created a mania’
Connor Bedard throws his stick to a group of fans.

Connor Bedard’s fame created a massive following around the Regina Pats junior team this past season.

Keith Hershmiller Photography

Around 3 a.m. on a winter Saturday, the Regina Pats’ team bus pulled up to a hotel in Medicine Hat, Alberta. A few dozen bleary-eyed teenagers stumbled down the steps, ready to finally lay down after traveling from that night’s game in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Connor Bedard was among the group — an indistinguishable 17-year-old, if not for the fact he was the Pats’ most talented player and one of the most-anticipated NHL Draft prospects in decades.

In the hotel lobby — just as there was and would be in every lobby, as he and the Pats had come to realize — a group of far less bleary-eyed fans awaited him, hoping for autographs.

“And even at 3 in the morning, Connor would say, ‘I’ll sign for these guys,’ ” recalled Dante De Caria, the team’s communications manager.

Stories like that exemplify how widespread, how intense and how — at times — absurd the Bedard Fever that spread across the Western Hockey League (one of Canada’s three top-tier junior circuits) became this past season. And there are many such stories.

While Chicago awaits Bedard, ready to immediately anoint him the Blackhawks’ savior as soon as his name is called with the No. 1 pick in the draft June 28, the city of Regina just waved farewell to the kid who singlehandedly made the capital of Saskatchewan — population 229,000 — one of the capitals of the hockey world.

“He created a mania,” Pats coach John Paddock said.

The Pats, founded in 1917, are Canada’s oldest junior-hockey team.

CEO Gord Pritchard describes their fan base as loyal and sizable by WHL standards; they ranked fifth out of 22 teams with an average attendance of 3,958 in 2021-22. Their alumni list includes Jordan Eberle, Chandler Stephenson and Hall of Famer Clark Gillies.

Nonetheless, never before had they dressed anyone like Bedard, and certainly never before had they experienced the kind of global relevance that Bedard’s presence brought.

They didn’t even entirely see it coming, given Bedard was a WHL star but hardly an icon through his first 2.5 seasons in the organization. But then the Vancouver native exploded during the world junior championships in late December and early January, enchanting Canadians coast to coast while leading their team to the gold medal.

“Once he came back from the world juniors, things took another level,” De Caria said. “It just kept elevating and elevating as he became more popular. His face was all over TV, all over social media.”

Connor Bedard celebrates a goal with the Pats.

Connor Bedard celebrates a goal with the Pats.

Keith Hershmiller Photography

The Pats, who had averaged 3,337 fans through their first 17 home games, hosted 4,761 for Bedard’s return to Regina on Jan. 8 — a 6-2 win over Calgary in which he scored four goals and assisted on the other two.

They hosted 5,651 fans against Saskatoon on Jan. 13 (a 7-4 win in which Bedard tallied five points), then a sellout of 6,499 fans against Swift Current on Jan. 21 (a 5-2 win in which Bedard scored twice). Altogether, the Pats averaged 5,664 fans through their final 17 home games.

“However you want to describe it — a bush fire, a wild fire, a monster — the following and the attention for him and for us from fans and from media exploded,” Paddock said.

Plus, there were meet-the-team events where the lines stretched out the Brandt Centre’s doors and community events with underprivileged kids that turned into bonanzas.

The team’s offices received a flood of shipments every day of letters to Bedard or memorabilia for him to sign. Paddock and Pritchard both described it as “too much to count.”

Their online store, meanwhile, shipped jerseys to fans across Canada, the United States and Europe. Paddock heard from a Regina-native friend working in Florida — who had ordered Pats jerseys for his kids — that people around the local rink recognized them as Bedard’s team.

And in downtown Regina, Pritchard noticed people wearing Pats jerseys to work, like he had seen only for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.

“For us, there was no playbook for this, and no other team really had one, either,” Pritchard said. “This was the first time we’ve seen anything like this in the WHL.”

“We had to look at things differently. For example, if we thought maybe 500 people would show up for a signing event, then 2,000 would show up. It’s that type of thinking that we had to adjust to. [As in], ‘OK, it’s not going to be a bit of an increase. It’s going to be a huge bump.’ ”

Away from home, Bedard Fever ran even hotter. In 19 of the last 20 road games in which Bedard played, the Pats’ opponents sold out their arenas.

That remarkable streak was highlighted by a game in Calgary on Feb. 1, when 17,223 fans packed the Saddledome (the Flames’ arena) to watch Bedard record two points in the Pats’ 6-5 shootout win over the Calgary Hitmen. The locals were hardly disappointed by the home team’s defeat.

“The crowds were big, but they were all there to see one guy,” De Caria said. “Unless he did something, you didn’t really hear a lot of cheers. I never found the energy was massive. I use Calgary as an example: When one of their players scored, they weren’t loud at all. But when Connor scored a goal, or even when he had the puck and made a nice move, they would cheer.”

Still, the enormous gatherings provided unique experiences for the entire team.

“There will be few players on our team that will be fortunate enough to play in the NHL, and others will go on to the AHL, ECHL or university hockey,” Pritchard said. “They all got the opportunity to play in front of sold-out buildings on a nightly basis, which was something they really relished.”

Fans react to a Connor Bedard goal.

Bedard finished with 143 points in 57 regular-season games this past season.

Keith Hershmiller Photography

Bedard’s development after the world juniors not only amplified his fame but also propelled the Pats, who went 15-9-2 down the stretch to qualify for the WHL playoffs for the first time since 2018. Bedard finished with 143 points in 57 regular-season games.

Facing Saskatoon in the playoffs, consecutive crowds of 14,768 packed the SaskTel Centre before 6,499 at the Brandt Centre watched the Pats’ season-ending Game 3 loss. In Saskatoon, Paddock encountered a family from Michigan who had flown up just so their son could meet his hero, which Paddock ensured happened.

Other groupies were more annoying than heartwarming, though. The early-morning Medicine Hat hotel incident was the norm, not the exception. No team meal at The Keg — a ubiquitous, upper-end Canadian restaurant chain — would go unnoticed.

“Somehow [fans] knew where we were going,” De Caria said. “We would get to the restaurant, and there were people waiting outside. People would approach him at his table when he was eating. He was always good about taking a picture or signing an autograph, but that’s where I had to come in.

“And then you get to the rink ... and everyone was just leaning down by the railing or waiting near the bus. A group of 20, 30, maybe 40 kids [would be] screaming his name, yelling ‘toe-drag release,’ asking him for an autograph, asking him for pictures.”

Eventually, the Pats learned to pull their bus inside road arenas, into private areas, before unloading.

“It was great experience to play in front of the crowds,” Paddock said. “It was something we got used to, but you don’t take the excitement for granted. The security was just so different. We had to take some precautions.

“You just had to be more on your toes and sometimes call ahead to the visiting team, just saying, ‘We have some concerns.’ ”

Perhaps the most impressive part of the smothering attention the Pats received was how well Bedard handled it.

He’s laying low until the Hawks’ pick becomes official, but by all accounts, he was never flustered, never dismissive and never rude. He often insisted on greeting fans even when the Pats’ staff advised against it.

De Caria remembered Bedard telling him about growing up as a Canucks fan, desperately trying to secure autographs from players such as Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis for his own collection. Standing in the opposite shoes now, he understands the feeling.

“The popularity, the fanfare, all the things that go along with how good he is never gets to his head,” De Caria said. “He’s more about other people. He enjoys seeing those kids leave happy with a smile on their face.”

On the ice, too, Bedard’s professionalism impressed his coaches and set a high standard. He served as team captain this past season for a reason, and it wasn’t solely because of his prolific scoring.

“With the example he sets, with the seriousness he has, the routine he has, he’s prepared all the time to play his best,” Paddock said. “That’s something that rubs off [on others]. In his case, it’s a lot more than any words that can be said. As the season went on and we got into the playoffs — in large part because of him — he started to speak to whatever the situations were more than he had.”

Connor Bedard talks with a teammate.

Connor Bedard not only led the Pats in scoring, but also served as team captain.

Keith Hershmiller Photography

Bedard has been frequently compared to Connor McDavid — and, indeed, McDavid’s trajectory offers the absolute best-case scenario for Bedard’s NHL career. But interestingly, McDavid’s final junior-hockey season (with the Erie Otters in 2014-15) didn’t generate quite this much pandemonium.

De Caria suspects that difference stems from geography. McDavid played in the Ontario Hockey League, where most fans around the circuit adore the Maple Leafs. In Saskatchewan, with no NHL franchise nearby, there’s less desensitization to stardom.

“I don’t think a junior-hockey player has had this amount of fanfare or hype in the history of the game,” De Caria said. “You put an exceptional-status player with [Bedard’s] popularity in Western Canada, and people just go bananas.”

So what happens now, with Bedard’s Regina reign having come to an end? Will the Pats’ relevance linger? Paddock is skeptical. Pritchard is more optimistic.

“For those folks that maybe came to a game for the first time this year to watch Connor ... they would’ve enjoyed not only the hockey on the ice but also the entire game package,” Pritchard said. “That’s what we’re trying to capitalize on.”

His optimism is fueled by random encounters such as one in his back alley recently, when a neighbor enthusiastically mentioned renewing his season tickets.

De Caria has had plenty of similarly random encounters, be it at the grocery store or gas station, in which employees mention how excited they are to watch Bedard on the Hawks. The surreal ride on which a 17-year-old took their city this past season, putting Regina on the map, won’t be soon forgotten.

“It’s really neat that he was part of the community here, and that a small part of his hockey career was here,” De Caria said. “People here do really appreciate the impact he had.”

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