It wasn’t just the quantity and quality of goals and assists Connor Bedard collected for the North Shore Warriors academy team as a 13-year-old with teammates two years older.
Nathan Fischer, the club’s assistant coach and academy co-founder, was astonished by what the North Vancouver phenom did off the ice, as a self-disciplined team leader who approached his schooling with the same vigour.
“His daily habits and accountability, and striving for excellence and uncompromising determination, it's hard to teach that stuff,” Fischer said. “But, at a young age, you can see that Connor had it, impressive that he's been able to stand by what made him successful at that age and see it work for him later in life as well.”
Fischer remembers that world travelled fast when the North Shore Winter Club player joined the all-encompassing, 10-month-a-year academy program, which plays in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League.
“Three months, four months into our program at that time, by Christmastime people are saying, ‘Hey, have you seen the Bedard kid with the Warriors?’” Fischer remembered. “In the new year, we had scouts and personnel, ensuring that they got a chance to see him in our playoffs. I remember playoffs were in Penticton, it was standing room all week in games that he was playing.”
Bedard eventually received a special exemption at age 14 to play in the under-18 prep level, so it didn’t shock Fischer in 2020 when the Western Hockey League designated Bedard its first “exceptional player” and the Regina Pats picked him first overall.
Now it’s early 2023 and hockey fans are still dazzled by Bedard’s performance at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship in Halifax and Moncton. He led Canada to its second consecutive title with nine goals and 14 assists. Now back in his No. 98 jersey with the Pats, he is focused on improving the team’s chances to qualify for the playoffs. But he has a date with destiny on June 28 in Nashville, where it’s expected Bedard’s name will be called first in the National Hockey League (NHL) draft in Nashville, the home of the Predators.
Bedard’s name is already mentioned in the same conversation as some NHL greats of yesterday and today, when talk turns to on-ice skill and off-ice marketability. A Los Angeles agent said that Bedard’s entry will have ramifications for the player, the franchise that chooses him and the league. Some consequences will be instant; others will take years to unfold.
“He'll get deals, but just because you're an all-world junior player doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to become an all-world NHL player either,” said Brant Feldman of American Group Management.
Every league needs star power to energize hardcore fans and spur interest among those less engaged. Edmonton Oiler Connor McDavid is leading the way, but he needs to win a Stanley Cup. Alex Ovechkin was overshadowed for many years by Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby until he led the Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup win. Now the Russian is on a quest to overtake Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL goal-scoring record of 894.
June’s draft order will ultimately be determined by lottery during the Stanley Cup Finals among the lowest finishers in the regular season. Current standings, with just over half the season to go, put the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadians, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks in the unofficial Bedard sweepstakes.
Bedard’s impact on the business of hockey would be minimal if the Coyotes draft him. The “Desert Dogs” are playing in the Arizona State University’s 5,025-seat Mullett Arena for four seasons with hopes of building an arena in a proposed $1.7 billion Tempe entertainment complex.
Feldman said Bedard could follow the footsteps of Rick Nash if Columbus picks him. Columbus chose Nash first overall in 2002. He played nine of his 15 NHL seasons in the Ohio city, but the expansion team appeared in only one playoff series and Nash did not become a superstar. His biggest career success came as a member of Canada’s back-to-back gold medal winning teams at the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Feldman notes that even players who have Stanley Cup rings don’t reach their marketing potential in a non-traditional market, such as back-to-back winner Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Conversely, Chicago is only an hour’s flight from Toronto with plenty of media exposure to Eastern Canada and an Original Six team that built a roster that won three Stanley Cups around Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Could the Windy City be the ultimate winning city for Bedard, the Blackhawks and the league?
“There's no rush to win immediately in Chicago, but, in Montreal, they expect to win the Stanley Cup every year,” Feldman said. “That doesn't help a young rookie player coming up into the NHL. So if there was a big market that he could develop in, and they put the right pieces around them, and they also have salary cap flexibility, that would be probably the right place for him to end up.”
Bedard is represented by super-agent Don Meehan’s Newport Sports Management, which has the biggest NHL client roster. That will no doubt open doors to deals for Bedard. BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc. already signed him last summer to promote the zero-sugar sports drink alongside McDavid.
The business has evolved greatly since Meehan started out in 1981. It is not just about negotiating contracts with general managers anymore. Clients are offered a suite of services from which to choose, including marketing consultation to maximize endorsement opportunities and public and corporate appearances, and to manage their social media presence.
Feldman cautions that not all players are comfortable with commercial opportunities.
For all of his marketing exposure, Crosby does not have a social media profile. Paul Kariya, a 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and North Vancouver’s previous superstar, played almost 1,000 games and recorded a point-per-game. But he did limited commercial work.
“You have to want to be able to do it, it's a job,” Feldman said. “The company is paying you to support their brand. You have to be all in to do it.”
Kariya came out of the University of Maine. But Bedard has already had an immersion in a structured program, which could position him better than most to juggle the demands of team and sponsors.
During his time at the academy, where parents pay $22,500 a year, Bedard studied at Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver, and had a rigorous schedule that included games, practices, dry-land strength and conditioning training, and sessions for mental performance, health and nutrition, video coaching and leadership tutoring.
Fischer said he gives a lot of credit to Bedard’s parents, Melanie and Tom, and his sister, Madison, for instilling a work ethic that values education, so Bedard is ready for a post-hockey life, whenever that may be. He said they gave Bedard a no-shortcuts attitude.
Bedard’s anticipated June draft comes at an opportune time for the NHL. One of the league’s key partnerships is over next year and another is up for renegotiation in a few years. The league needs a player like Bedard.
The $5.2 billion Rogers Communications’ 12-year media rights deal runs through the 2025-26 season. Will Rogers re-up and keep Hockey Night in Canada on CBC or will Bell Media make a run for it?
It is worth about $300 million a season and the NHL will be looking for more. Rogers inked the deal in 2013, well before the NHL expanded to Las Vegas and Seattle, whose Golden Knights and Kraken will be featured in the 2024 edition of the New Year’s Day Winter Classic at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.
The league’s expansion to a 31st and 32nd market helped it sell seven-year deals to ESPN and ABC parent Disney ($400 million a year) and Turner ($225 million a year).
Meanwhile, next season will be the last for Adidas to outfit NHL teams. The German company succeeded Reebok in 2017-2018 that ESPN said was worth $70 million a year, double the previous.
As the latest great Canadian prospect, Bedard will no doubt get stick and skate contracts, but could he play a central role in selling the next uniform sponsor’s gear?
“We don't know who's replacing [Adidas] as of yet. So, you know, for a Nike Canada or an Adidas or an Under Armour or Lululemon or some other brands could potentially go out and maybe sign him,” Feldman said. “I think we kind of need to know a little bit more about the where we're going to end up with an NHL clothing brand for the for the uniforms, but Bedard makes a lot of sense to me to be the face of that company when they get online and not just sign him, but sign five or six NHL players.”
Canadian demographics are changing and so is their taste in sports. The Toronto Raptors’ 2019 National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, Canadian soccer’s women’s Olympic gold medal in 2021 and men’s national team return to the FIFA World Cup in 2022 have ignited interest in those sports, with each event garnering large TV audiences.
Raptor Scottie Barnes was the NBA rookie of the year last season and is showcased by Subway and Google Pixel ad campaigns. Former Vancouver Whitecap Alphonso Davies boasts deals with BMO, Nike and EA Sports and the world’s soccer spotlight is shifting to Canada, U.S. and Mexico, co-hosts of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
A survey by TSN and IMI International in April 2022 ranked the top 10 most-marketable Canadian athletes. Only three of the 10 were NHLers (No. 4 Sidney Crosby, No. 5 Connor McDavid and No. 8 Mitch Marner). Bayern Munich’s Davies, Tristan Thompson of the Chicago Bulls and Formula 1 driver Lance Stroll were the top three, in that order.
“Has there been a development of more young basketball men and women's talent because of the evolution of the Raptors? Yes. But are we seeing it from a ratings viability side, the Raptors are just killing it every single time because they were the NBA champions a couple years ago? No,” Feldman said. “The NHL is a sustained League of 106 years and soccer in North America, especially in Canada, hasn't really proven itself as of yet.”
The hefty deals tell the story. In its most-recent list, Forbes pegged McDavid as the highest-paid NHL player with $10.8 million on ice and an estimated in $4.5 million in off-ice sponsorships with CCM, Go Auto, Upper Deck and BetMGM.
The estimate for McDavid’s sponsorship is lower than Alex Ovechkin’s $5 million (Coca-Cola, Hublot and Nike), but higher than Toronto Maple Leaf Auston Matthews’ $3.8 million (Lids, Edge Theory Labs and Bet99).
Crosby previously dominated, with a portfolio of sponsors such as Tim Hortons, Telus, Kellogg’s and SportChek. In 2005, while still in major junior with Quebec’s Rimouski Oceanic, Reebok signed Crosby to a $500,000-a-year deal brokered by Crosby’s agent and Feldman’s mentor, Pat Brisson.
Indeed, the team that Bedard already picked to represent him could be as important as the one that gives him his first NHL jersey in Nashville.
“What's the brand-building of the athlete? We will see what that is,” Feldman said. “But is he a winner? Yeah, the kid’s that winner. But now he's got to do it at the next level, just like he's done it at all the other levels.”
Just as Bedard excelled with and against older players at the North Shore Warriors academy, Fischer expects he will hold his own against the bigger players he will encounter in the NHL. He could also draw comparisons to other young, finesse players, such as Colorado Avalanche blue liner Cale Makar and Anaheim Ducks centre Trevor Zegras.
No doubt it will be an adjustment, but Fischer said Bedard is the person and the player who will handle it very well.
“I don't think size will stop Connor, if he's playing against someone who's six-foot-five, he still has a lethal skill set, and a shot and an ability to perform on the world stage against the very best, to be effective,” Fischer said. “The other thing is, is how he's handled pressure, how he's handled naysayers and people that have that have maybe doubted his ability or who he is.