Bedard shines as Canada preps for New Year's Eve matchup with Sweden at world juniors

HALIFAX — Brandt Clarke was manning his position on the blue line early in the second period when the action abruptly stopped.

The Canadian defenceman knew Connor Bedard just had the puck on his stick.

Then he didn't.

There were gasps and cheers moments later Thursday night from the red-clad crowd inside Scotiabank Centre when they – along with the officials and Bedard's teammates – realized what happened.

The 17-year-old phenom had perfectly placed a shot from a tight, near-impossible angle under the crossbar on the unsuspecting Austrian netminder for his first of two goals in what would turn into an 11-0 romp.

"Very sudden," Clarke said when asked his perspective following Friday's practice. "Then you look at the replay and you're like, 'What in the world?' It was literally a puck-width of space and he put it in there only like he can.

"Pretty remarkable."

It has, quite frankly, been a remarkable week at the world junior hockey championship for the 2023 NHL draft's presumptive top pick.

Bedard has 14 points to lead the tournament – linemate Logan Stankoven is second with seven – and he's tied Jordan Eberle's national record of 14 career goals at the men's under-20 event.

The North Vancouver, B.C., native also knotted a Canadian single-game mark with seven points in Wednesday's 11-2 drubbing of Germany before putting up six more against Austria.

"Pretty special," said forward Dylan Guenther, a member of the Arizona Coyotes loaned to Canada for the tournament.

"You don't see that – ever."

Except you might when No. 16 is on the ice.

And Clarke, a member of the Los Angeles Kings, believes Bedard could play in the NHL right now.

"He's got the drive, he's got the skill, he's got determination," Clarke said. "There's not exceptional status for the NHL.

"But if there was, he'd be the No. 1 candidate."

The star centre for the Western Hockey League's Regina Pats – coincidentally where Eberle played – is also just four points back of the record 31 put up over three world junior tournaments by Eric Lindros.

It's unlikely, however, the event will ever see Bedard again with a straight-line path to the NHL coming after this season.

The world junior records are nice, but what Bedard really craves is a moment like the one Eberle is truly remembered for – his dramatic tying goal in the dying seconds of the 2009 semifinals in Ottawa against Russia.

"If you ask anyone in the country, they’d want to be scoring that goal," Bedard said. "It would be nice to score a big one like he has."

With the tournament hosts set to meet Sweden on Saturday in a New Year's Eve matchup with massive seeding implications, Canadian head coach Dennis Williams said Bedard would trade each of his points for another gold medal after also winning August's pandemic-delayed showcase.

"Everyone loves scoring goals and being on the scoresheet," Williams said. "But getting to know him deep down, he's here for one thing – he wants to repeat.

"He'll do whatever it takes."

That drive comes, at least in part, from Bedard's appreciation of his dad’s profession.

Tom Bedard is a logger in B.C., often starting his days before dawn and spending hours on the road getting to and from his gruelling job.

"Pretty hard worker," Connor said of his father, whose birthday is Saturday. "His schedule's probably tougher than most. He comes home and he's still the most positive guy.

"Realizing what he does makes me feel so lucky just to play hockey."

And Canada feels lucky to have Bedard.

"First played with him at the under-18 tournament," said defenceman Jack Matier. "He was the quiet kid. Coming back here, I really notice his confidence, but also his humility off the ice.

"And a very special player on the ice with his highlight-reel goals and all the skill in the world."

Clarke was asked what he thinks pushes Bedard, a player already being mentioned in the same breath as Connor McDavid.

"People get motivated in different ways," he said. "A guy that knows his abilities, likes to put on a show for people, likes to make plays with the puck, has the utmost confidence in himself. That drives him. He wants to be better than he was last game.

"Just the kind of person he is."

His country couldn't ask for anything more.

SEEDING SCENES

Canada enters the final day of Group A action with six points from three games. Sweden leads with eight, followed by Czechia with seven.

Canada dropped its opening game to Czechia. A regulation win for the Canadians over the Swedes would guarantee them second place ahead of Monday's quarterfinals.

Czechia – the country commonly known as the Czech Republic – takes on Germany in its round-robin finale.

MILIC GETS THE CALL

Williams announced Thomas Milic would start in goal ahead of Benjamin Gaudreau.

The only player not drafted when eligible on the Canadian roster – Bedard and Adam Fantilli get their turn in June – the 19-year-old netminder has used that as fuel.

"I'm pretty proud," Milic said of backstopping a star-studded roster. "(Not being drafted) is always something that's in the back of my mind. But right now my top priority is this tournament and helping the team.

"If you're playing good, you're playing good. That's all that matters in tournaments like this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press