Chicago Blackhawks, Connor Bedard

NHL Needs to Get on & Accelerate the Connor Bedard Hype Train

Since the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Connor Bedard with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, the amount of media attention he’s received is unprecedented. Of course Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid had their fair share once they entered the league, and Auston Matthews being drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs created quite a stir in the “Center of the Hockey Universe.”

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But the combination of hockey fans watching years’ worth of Bedard highlights in junior; being drafted in a hockey-mad American market like Chicago; the NHL’s U.S. television deal belonging to ESPN, and the higher powers who set the NHL schedule, make the 18-year-old’s entry into the greatest league in the world one of the most anticipated events in modern hockey history.

Some have argued that we’ve paid Bedard too much attention. Let’s look at why he and the Blackhawks deserve every bit of it – and more.

Chicago is Hockey’s Best U.S. Market

During a Friday roundtable discussion in 2014 on the Canadian Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Prime Time Sports, Toronto’s former preeminent sports talk radio show hosted by Bob McCown, a segment asked whether that year’s Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers was the perfect matchup of U.S. media markets.

Related: Blackhawks’ Goaltending Depth in Great Shape Moving Forward

One of the panelists was John Shannon, a former executive producer on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and one of the smartest minds in sports television production. He made the case that it was the team the Kings defeated in the Western Conference Final – the Blackhawks – who would have been the better matchup for the league and its ratings.

Connor Bedard Chicago Blackhawks
Forward Connor Bedard has one goal and two assists for three points in his first five games with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

And he’s right. Very right. On social media, the Blackhawks are the most popular team in the NHL, and it isn’t really close. On both Facebook and X, Chicago has more than five million combined followers, well ahead of their Original Six rivals, like the Boston Bruins and their nearly four million followers, or the three million held by both the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, respectively.

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Winning three Stanley Cup championships through the 2010s, right when social media started to engrain itself in our daily lives, doesn’t hurt either. For many people, the first highlights they were able to share on their phones with each other were probably a Patrick Kane goal or a Duncan Keith pass.

Throw in that Chicago ranks third in North America in terms of how many homes can watch the city’s professional sports teams, or how it’s far and away the largest metropolis in the American midwest, and you’ve got a recipe for the juiciest ratings in the NHL’s history.

Need more proof? With an average of 1.43 million viewers, Bedard’s debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 10 was the most-viewed NHL regular-season game in ESPN history. For context: ESPN has aired NHL games on and off since 1985. The most-viewed regular-season game in nearly 40 years? Not bad.

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The United Center is the home of the Chicago Blackhawks. (Public Domain)

It’s no coincidence the NHL scheduled the Blackhawks to play their first five games on the road, all on national television in both Canada and the U.S. Also, look at the teams they played: Crosby’s Penguins, another major American market with the Bruins, the premier Canadian markets with the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, and a recent Stanley Cup winner in the Colorado Avalanche.

What that indicates is the NHL has gotten on – and accelerated – the “Connor Bedard Hype Train,” and all who want to hop on are welcome to join. For some, however, including his teammates, it’s gotten to be a little much.

Hall on Bedard Hype: “It Can Be a Little Much”

Bedard’s teammate Taylor Hall, himself a former No. 1 pick in 2010, was asked by reporters in Toronto when the Blackhawks faced the Maple Leafs what his sense was of how Bedard has handled all the media attention.

Hall, who turns 32 in November, gave a pretty thoughtful answer.

“I think he’s handling it really well,” said Hall. “He does way too many in-game interviews. I think they need to find a way to just let him play. I think he understands his role as a major ambassador for the game of hockey and he’s handling it so well. He doesn’t seem to be fazed by it.

“But I think that it can be a little much for him at times,” he continued. “He doesn’t say that, but it feels like it is.”

I get what he’s saying. Hall is speaking for a teammate that he’s seen take more media requests in a short amount of time than maybe any player in the sport’s history. By hockey’s standards, Bedard has done more than enough for the game.

Related: Blackhawks’ Third Line Becoming Team’s Identity Line

But hockey’s standards aren’t anywhere near the standards of the rest of sports. Hockey players are naturally introverted, reciting the same baked-in cliches and phrases that have become a parody of themselves. Every interview with a hockey player goes as follows:

Interviewer: Tonight was a big game for your team, you came back from two goals down in the third period to win it. What was the mood in the locker room after the second period?

Player: Yeah you know it was a big two points for the boys, we came in with our head’s held up high and dug in, and like I said, big two points for the boys.

Interviewer: This was a playoff game, there are no points awarded when you win a playoff game.

Player: Yeah you know like I said, big two points, boys got the pucks in deep and threw the puck on the net, stayed focus, so yeah, big two points.

Interviewer: I could say anything I want right now and you’d just tell me the same thing, wouldn’t you? Any thoughts on good stocks to invest in? Where is the tallest mountain? Does this tie match my suit?

Player: It’s all about the name on the front of the sweater, not the one on the back.

Interviewer: Thank you for your time.

Every. Single. Time. A large part of it is hockey culture’s fault. We criticize these players for failing to show any individuality, but then punish them when they do. The things that make hockey the best sport in the world – the camaraderie, the sacrifice, one for all and all for one, yada yada yada – is the same thing that stunts its growth.

In North America, the NHL Needs to Catch Up

Among North America’s big four professional sports leagues, the NHL ranks fourth in popularity (at least in the U.S., where, you know, 25 of the league’s 32 teams are based). When it comes to the continent’s other three major leagues:

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ESPN holds the NHL television, streaming and media rights rights through the 2027-28 season. -ESPN
  1. The National Football League is the Goliath of professional sports, so much so that they practically own a day of the week.
  2. Major League Baseball, while more regional, commands a loyalty from its fans that’s tough to match, not to mention the league’s new rules in a post-COVID world have contributed to its largest attendance increase since the late ’90s.
  3. And the National Basketball Association offers a cast of characters that provides so much content that there isn’t a sports fan in the world who doesn’t know who LeBron James or Stephen Curry is.

In his weekly 32 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wrote a blurb that really stood out to me:

“There are so many great people in this sport with stories to tell. I’ve been concerned with the loss of great television features; we must revive them. Hockey is all about team over individual — a lofty and worthy goal — but we must recognize our audience craves more access to its stars and greater knowledge of what makes them tick.”

-Elliotte Friedman, 32 Thoughts, Oct. 18, 2023

Yes! Sports can be so much more than X’s and O’s and let’s effing go’s. If you’ve ever woke up at 7 a.m. EST and watched ESPN for an entire day, here’s what you’ll see:

• Segments that examine NFL quarterbacks and what they did right or wrong for their teams on any given Sunday.

• Legacy conversations on any number of current NBA players, and somehow Michael Jordan will be mentioned.

• What’s wrong with Aaron Judge or (insert New York Knicks star player) or (insert New York sports head coach)

Do you see a pattern? Personalities dominate the game. Individuals take up the oxygen in general water cooler conversation. Narratives are shaped by superstars and team efforts are saved for the No. 15 seed in the March Madness tournament.

“Hockey Doesn’t Count” – But Bedard Can Change That

Do you remember this on the network’s First Take in March 2023?

ESPN and Stephen A. Smith later apologized, but hockey fans heard what they deep down already knew to be true. “Hockey doesn’t count,” said Smith. The sport the network is paying nearly $3 billion to air and stream doesn’t count.

But, are they wrong? None of hockey’s superstars would crack a list of the most well-known professional athletes in the U.S. What’s the most famous hockey moment the average American can think of…the Miracle on Ice? Which happened over 40 years ago? Ask the average American who the best player in the league is, and it would shock you how many say, Wayne Gretzky, who retired in 1999.

Related: 5 Things The Blackhawks Must Do to Make the Playoffs

Again, this isn’t their fault – it’s hockey’s. We don’t market our players well enough. Every interview feels like the player is applying for a role with a Fortune 500 company. Every “light segment” feels stiffer than Roger Sterling’s morning milk. Like Friedman said in his column, there are so many great people in this sport with stories to tell.

Connor Bedard Chicago Blackhawks
Connor Bedard after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of those people is Bedard, the greatest prospect out of junior since McDavid and Crosby, with the most hype of any player since Eric Lindros in 1991. The NHL has an opportunity to do something special with the new King of Chicago. Those complaining that Bedard is getting too much attention, while they may be well-intentioned, are wrong.

He needs more attention. Every day on ESPN, they should be saying his name. Every night on Sportsnet and TSN, there should be a Bedard segment. He should be trending every day on social media because of who he is, and because of how good he is.

Sports are impervious to saturation because something new happens each and every day. It’s the greatest reality TV show ever made. If that’s really true, then all eyes should be on Bedard.

It’s his world, and we’re lucky enough to live in it.

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