Chicago Blackhawks hockey has been down in the dumps for the last eight years. Since winning the Stanley Cup in the 2014-15 season, Chicago hasn’t gotten past the first round of the playoffs, missing the postseason altogether in each of the past three campaigns. But when the team won the NHL’s draft lottery this past May, the Blackhawks quickly sold over 500 new season ticket packages in 90 minutes. That’s because 18-year-old sharpshooter Connor Bedard was the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and his future in Chicago was all but sealed.
The NHL offseason has basically been one big push by the league and the Blackhawks to anoint Bedard as “the future of hockey,” a moniker first bestowed upon him five years ago when he was all of 13. He averaged over two points per game in three years with the WHL’s Regina Pats, has been compared to Sidney Crosby and already leads the NHL in individual scoring chances by a whopping margin. On the week of Bedard’s long-awaited home ice debut at Chicago’s United Center, ESPN reported that Blackhawks tickets had doubled in price. Even Bedard’s first nationally televised game on ESPN became the most-watched regular season NHL game in the network’s history. Suffice it to say, the hype had been effectively built up for Bedard’s big debut, but could the kid from North Vancouver, BC, live up to it in his first game in front of the Chicago crowd?
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With the returning champion Vegas Golden Knights in the building for Saturday’s game, Chicago had their work cut out for them. But you could feel the energy throughout the arena: specifically, the energy of a fanbase looking to add a seventh Stanley Cup banner to the rafters, ASAP. A pre-game ceremony honoring recently deceased owner Rocky Wirtz was followed by a raucous national anthem sing-a-along for the rejuvenated fans. Bedard jerseys dominated the landscape — even outnumbering those of Patrick Kane, who led the team to three Cup titles this millennium. Guys, gals, grandmas, grandpas and babies, too — everyone was pumped to be donning Bedard’s number 98 across their backs. It was loud in there from the jump, with people fired up at every corner of the building. “Let’s get Bedarded!” a sloppy, high-fiving bro, tall can of beer in hand, shouted at passersby heading to their seats for the puck drop.
Bedard wasted no time making his presence felt in a spectacular way. Less than 90 seconds into the game, the Blackhawks went on a powerplay. A face off in the Vegas zone sent the puck up against the boards behind the net, when Blackhawks wingers Corey Perry and Taylor Hall desperately tried to get the puck back up to the point and generate a shot. Hall got a clean poke and flipped it to Bedard — who, in almost movie-like fashion, was alone with a point blank look at the goaltender. The crowd’s roar seemed to go silent at that moment and it felt like everything was frozen. With a shot that’ll be remembered forever, Bedard captured the puck, briefly adjusted his mark and fired an epic wrister over goalie Adin Hill’s left shoulder, into both the back of the net and into Blackhawks lore.
There’s instant gratification and then there was this. Ninety seconds into his home debut, against the reigning champs, Connor Bedard gave the Blackhawks the lead. From there, every time he touched the puck, the decibel levels went up. A marvel to watch, Bedard was truly larger than life. Everything he did sustained the high from that first goal, even if he and the team felt like a work in progress throughout the game.
It didn’t take Vegas long to equalize, but the game was knotted up at two at the close of the second period. Behind Bedard, the Blackhawks were hanging tough with the champs — until early in the third, when Vegas took a lead that they would not relinquish, en route to a 5-3 win.
But all that mattered was Bedard. He seemed to operate on a different wavelength, a couple of times dropping absolute dimes near the net, scoring opportunities that perhaps his teammates didn’t expect to be there and couldn’t capitalize on. It’s clear that the team is still learning how to make the most of Bedard’s elite offensive abilities. If there was ever a loss that home fans could shrug off with ease, it was this one. Because they saw what they came for.
Early in the first period, a couple sauntered into our row just a hair late for the game. “Who was it?” the fan asked about the game’s first goal. We broke the news to him and he let out a half-gasp, half-laugh. “Bedard?! Oh, man, I missed it!” Not to fear, bud: You’ll get plenty more chances to see Connor Bedard’s magic on the ice in the years to come.