Connor Bedard was on the ice at Prince George’s CN Centre, Friday night, and so were some of Quesnel’s rising hockey stars.
It was a rare sold-out affair at the city’s premier arena when the player touted as the next Crosby or McDavid came to town to play the Cougars. Bedard of the Regina Pats is widely considered the next top pick in the next NHL draft, but more than that, he is described as a generational talent.
He did not disappoint the standing-room-only crowd. In the first 30 seconds he made a behind-the-back pass that made the audience gasp in appreciation and that was just the start. For close to 6,000 fans it was the definition of conflicted loyalties, wanting the Cougars to win but also wanting to be Bedar-zled.
The Cougars are loaded in talent of their own, and opened the scoring only 1:47 into the game. The Pats tied it only three minutes later, but Bedard was not involved in the play, or the second Pats goal.
It was 2-1 Regina when the first period ended but that was not the end of the excitement at ice level. The ever popular “Fanboni” came out for several circles of the rink, with select fans getting to ride in luxury on the converted ice cleaner. The swirling spotlights illuminated several members of the Quesnel Thunder riding in style, waving at the audience.
When the ride was over, they whooped and cheered as they descended the machine underneath the stands – stands that have only been this full a handful of times in the 21st century.
“I’ve been to a lot of Cougars games over the years. I’ve never seen it this packed,” said one of the players.
The contingent was a mix of U13 and U11 teams there for tournaments over the weekend. They were chaperoned by team manager Joelle Harvey.
“We were freaking out,” said one of the players, relating how they got asked to ride the converted zamboni.
“The adrenaline is still rushing through my body,” said another.
The group confirmed “we’ve seen a lot of Quesnel faces” in the crowd, all there to see a budding superstar.
“It’s insane. Chance of a lifetime. One of my friends is here and he’s Bedard’s biggest fan,” the half-dozen players took turns saying. As they did the puck dropped to start the second period, play ensued, and Bedard made the magic they hoped for. Regina’s captain executed a slick toe-drag, used the last defender as a screen, shot through the D’s legs and scored only 20 seconds into the new frame.
The Quesnel kids whooped and hollered again. “Absolute sniper,” a couple of them said, but quickly added “go Cats go!”
After the game, Bedard spoke with Black Press and acknowledged the high number of kids he knew were there that night to watch him. He encouraged them to dig into hockey themselves.
“It’s going to be the greatest memories of your life. If you play at a high level or a low level, you meet your best friends and you’re going to enjoy yourself a lot,” he said.
When asked about his electrifying wrist shot, he had another message for the kids: enjoy the learning process. He said he honed his famous release “just watching Auston Matthews videos. I’m a bit of a nerd, but I’d do that then go try to copy him in the backyard.”
After two goals, two goalposts, one disallowed goal, and next-level skills constantly on display that night against the Cougars, plenty of Quesnel kids might now be burning up YouTube watching Connor Bedard highlights and running out to the backyard themselves.