2021 mu18wc shane wright connor bedard feature

An exceptional challenge

Arriving prepared in Texas for the 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship required extraordinary adjustments for Connor Bedard and Shane Wright

Jamie Umbach
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April 27, 2021
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Status: Exceptional.

It’s as if they’ve been cut from the same cloth, or cast in the same mould.

An innate sense of professionalism, combined with on-ice ingenuity and maturity beyond their years, is threaded into the fabric of both Connor Bedard and Shane Wright.

Being exceptional is woven into their DNA as two talents deserving of the spotlight as underagers pulling on the red and white silks of Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team at the 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship.

In a 2020-21 season like no other, brought on by unprecedented circumstances from the COVID-19 pandemic, finding further opportunities to hone their craft as top-eligible prospects for the 2022 and 2023 NHL drafts have required extraordinary adjustments.

“It’s just been crazy,” says Wright, who joined John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Sean Day and Connor McDavid as 15-year-olds granted exceptional status in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) . “It’s crazy that our season was cut short by a virus. You just never expect something like that to happen.”

The 16-year-old is 416 days removed from concluding his rookie season, one that saw him earn OHL and Canadian Hockey League (CHL) rookie of the year honours with 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games for the Kingston Frontenacs.

“I think back now about how long ago that was and how long it’s been since we last played,” he adds. “I think that’s been the biggest thing for me.”

Bedard, 15, could only adjust on the fly as his first season of Major Junior unfolded much differently than Wright – even before he was anointed the first exceptional-status player in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and selected first overall by the Regina Pats just over a month after COVID-19 shut down the hockey world.

“There have been a lot of crazy things and it’s been a super weird year,” Bedard says. “There have been a lot of surreal moments.”

While the exceptional status shared by both Bedard and Wright is a testament to their immense skill and maturity, their separate journeys over the past 13 months to arrive in Texas poised to punch above their weight on the international stage are results of this extraordinary and unprecedented season.

“That would be an understatement,” Wright jokes, expressing his excitement for his first taste of official game action in well over a calendar year. The Burlington, Ont., product was one of the many OHL players and staff tasked with filling the void in their schedule brought on by the suspension (and eventual cancellation) of the 2020-21 season.

Limitless dedication and a professional mindset kept Wright focused on his craft. Time and energy reserved for game time was redistributed towards improving the fundamentals and his physical development through daily Zoom sessions with trainers, skills coaches, management and teammates.

“We weren’t able to do a whole lot last summer with everything locked down, but most of my time was spent in the gym or on the ice,” Wright says. “It was huge just being able to work out and skate like normal; still being able to practice and find ways to get better. It was really important for me to stay in shape and just stay prepared for when, or if, our season would start again.”

Wright put extra stock and emphasis behind cracking the Team Canada roster for the IIHF World Junior Championship, despite being more than a year younger than any other player invited to selection camp.

Although he didn’t make the final cut, the experience was invaluable to his development in a year that lacked competitive opportunities.

“That was a cool experience for me,” Wright says. “It was nice seeing the top guys at that level, competing against them and seeing how they prepare for games. It was good for me to see how I matched up against guys like that.”

The IIHF U18 World Championship will be no different, as Wright aims to lead by example with the ‘C’ on his chest. It’s the second time in as many official international appearances he has been named captain; he led Canada Black as an underager at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

“I think everyone not being able to play as much this year is going to give us a little extra motivation,” he says. “No one’s too concerned about themselves; we’re focused on the tournament and trying to win a gold medal.

For Bedard, from the moment he was deemed exceptional, the challenges brought on by the pandemic have made for a rewarding introduction to junior hockey.

The native of North Vancouver, B.C., attended his first-ever Hockey Canada event virtually when the national under-17 development camp was held online back in July as he awaited news from the WHL about when, or if, its season would begin.

“Listening and learning through Zoom, it’s obviously different,” Bedard says. “But it’s the way it is right now.”

The delayed start to the WHL presented Bedard the unique chance to train to travel overseas to Jonkoping, Sweden, and suit up for the U18 and U20 teams with HV71, one of the top programs in the country.

“I was waiting to hear what the WHL was saying, because it was originally an October start date before it got pushed back,” Bedard says. “My agency brought up the idea of going overseas, and I’m really happy I took that opportunity.”

Room and board provided by the Swedish club left Bedard a short bike or bus ride from the arena, and he was even given a key to the facility to use whenever he saw fit. There’s not much a 15-year-old in an unfamiliar country could ask for.

“I was basically just going to the rink then back to the apartment, so those were the kinds of things I needed – a key to get into the rink and a key to get back into the apartment,” he says. “You kind of just get to go into the rink whenever you want. They have a really nice shooting facility and gyms that I could use if a team wasn’t in there, so being able to take advantage of that was really important.”

Bedard tallied three goals and six points in five games with HV71 before an abrupt end to his Swedish stay and a return to Canada no more than 72 hours later – well in advance of joining his new Regina teammates in the bubble ahead of his first WHL game on March 12.

A 48-second window during the second period of his debut encapsulated the long-awaited arrival of Bedard in the WHL, with two quick releases from the slot against the Prince Albert Raiders marking an impressive showing from the league’s first exceptional talent.

“Being able to play my first game with the Pats and score twice is something I’ll remember for a long time,” he said. “Just being able to get it that fast was a big relief and took a lot of pressure off myself.”

In all, Bedard tallied 12 goals and 28 points in 15 games before leaving the Pats to join Team Canada, numbers that put him at or near the top of the WHL.

Between the two players, exceptional talent recognizes exceptional talent.

“Just looking at how he played in the WHL, he’s a special player and deserves to be here just as much as anyone else,” Wright says. “I’m looking forward to seeing him in person and getting the chance to play with him.”

After taking notes watching Wright make his debut as a 15-year-old the season before in Kingston, the opportunity to finally connect on and off the ice has Bedard excited for the team’s potential to make noise and earn a gold medal at the IIHF U18 World Championship for the first time since 2013.

“Obviously seeing what he did last year was pretty remarkable, so he’s someone I’ve kind of looked up to,” Bedard says. “Getting to finally play on his team and see him on the ice with the team here is going to be a lot of fun.”

For more information:

Dominick Saillant
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
514-895-9706
[email protected]

 

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

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