Bedard and Pats pushing for playoffs

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Regina Pats forward Connor Bedard dangles his way by Prince Albert Raiders blueliner Tre Fouquette on Sept. 17 at the Art Hauser Centre.

For the first time since 2018, the expectations for the Regina Pats are to be part of the playoff conversation in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.

While some of that comes with the additions of former Lethbridge Hurricanes first round pick Zack Stringer on offense and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Stanislav Svozil on the blueline, along with the expected return of overage defenceman and Seattle Kraken draft pick Ryker Evans, a lot of it has to do with junior hockey phenom Connor Bedard.

Even though the 16-year-old is already the face of the franchise and possibly the entire WHL after just 15 games with the Pats, Bedard is quick to point out that it will be a total team effort for the Pats as they look to achieve their goals.

“This is a group of guys that really care,” Bedard said following a September pre-season game at the Art Hauser Centre. “They want to win and they are willing to do whatever it takes.

“We’ve had some tough practices so far with a couple of two hours skates and some bag skates, but we’ve been giving it all every day. If we can keep on doing that and fine-tuning the systems to where we need them to be, I think we’re going to be a really good team.”

The top pick in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft and the first player to ever be granted exceptional status in league history, Bedard more than lived up to the hype during the 2020-21 campaign.

After playing a handful of games for the HV71 Under-18 and Under-20 teams in Sweden, he joined the Pats in the East Division hub and led the squad in scoring with 28 points in 15 games on his way to winning the WHL’s rookie of the year award.

Bedard rounded out the campaign by putting up 14 points in seven games to finish a tie with Kingston Frontenacs forward and 2022 NHL Draft prospect Shane Wright for the team scoring lead for Canada’s gold medal winning side at the IIHF World Under-18’s in Frisco, Texas before heading back home to North Vancouver, B.C.

“The summer definitely felt pretty short,” Bedard said. “I got back home around May 10 and went into quarantine thing before getting back training ahead of the Hockey Canada summer camps this summer.

“The off-season was shorter than normal but it feels to get back going again. All of us are really excited to get back going again.”

Although Bedard is used to being in leagues as an underage player, the adjustment of facing guys that were five years older than him was something that he and fellow 2005-born Pats forward Tanner Howe of Prince Albert had to get used to last year.

“The WHL is definitely a tough league and It was a big jump for Tanner and I as were going up against 20-year-olds and guys who had just got back from the World Juniors on a regular basis,” Bedard said.

“I wasn’t able to beat guys as much in one-on-one situations compared to what I was able to do in midget and leagues like that. I learned a lot from that as I worked on improving my speed and strength this summer and there are always things that you can take away from a season as you go into your off-season.

Unlike the hub campaign, which was held at the Brandt Centre in Regina, Bedard will be venturing out to opposing barns on regular basis this year.

The Pats paid visits to Winnipeg, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw during exhibition play and will open up their 2021-22 slate at the Art Hauser Centre on Friday with a 7 p.m. matchup with the Raiders.

“That first trip to Winnipeg was about six-and-a-half hours and I think it was a four-hour trip to Prince Albert,” Bedard said.

“I think that’s something that’s been really good for us, especially the young guys on our team as we get used to what the WHL is all about.

As one of the top prospects for the 2023 NHL Draft, Bedard’s already used to having the spotlight on him and is prepared for the extra exposure that will come his way, along with the catcalls from opposing fans.

“I skated with a lot of pro guys during the off-season and there were kids and older guys around the rink checking things out, so I’m getting used to that extra attention, but I think it’s something that you figure out how to handle as you go along,” Bedard said.

“It wasn’t a packed barn here tonight (on Sept. 17 against the Raiders) but it was loud and there were people cheering against us. It’s definitely good though to get that excitement that comes with having fans back in the building again.”