Call it the Connor Bedard boost.
The 17-year-old Regina Pats forward keeps packing arenas in Western Canada after his electrifying performance in last month’s world junior men’s hockey championship.
The projected first overall pick in June’s NHL draft was filling Calgary’s Saddledome on Wednesday after junior hockey rinks were at capacity in his previous five games.
In anticipation of ticket demand, the Calgary Hitmen expanded sales beyond the usual lower bowl for major junior games to the Saddledome’s upper sections.
A Hitmen spokesperson said 16,700 tickets had been sold by mid-afternoon for Wednesday’s game.
The Western Hockey League game, also televised on TSN, offered the largest in-house audience of Bedard’s career.
“I’m pretty sure that would be the most,” Bedard said in a pre-game meeting with media at a downtown Calgary hotel.
“It’s a lot, so it’s exciting for all of us to have that and I think that’s something you don’t really get tired of.”
Edmonton and Calgary have the two Western Hockey League teams that share an arena with an NHL club.
Bedard’s last Saddledome outing Oct. 2 drew 3,279.
But since smashing multiple records and earning tournament MVP at the men’s junior championship in Halifax with 23 points in nine games, Bedard’s been putting bums in seats at home and on the road.
There was an uptick in November’s WHL gates when Bedard and the Pats were in town, but he’s an even hotter ticket now.
Tuesday’s game in Red Deer, Alta., was a sellout at 7,287.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes say no more tickets are available for Friday’s game in the team’s 5,900-seat building.
Another full house of over 7,000 is projected Sunday in Medicine Hat.
“On the road, they don’t like you as much, which is fun,” Bedard said. “When you’re home they’re cheering for you, so either way you’re kind of getting fired up for it.”
Fans in WHL markets are taking advantage of the chance to see a future NHL superstar for $15 to $30 instead over twice the price when he likely plays in the NHL next season.
Bedard’s 42 goals and 43 assists in 34 games topped the WHL at a blistering 2.5 points per game.
“It seems like there’s a certain level of elite players who are … so bought in, so focused, so driven or pay so much attention to detail,” said Pats coach and general manager John Paddock, who previously coached the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets.
“For me, that’s him. He’s able to shut out the outside noise for the most part and be himself.
“I see him every day. The best way to say it is there hasn’t been any indication he’s not going to be what everybody talks about.
“He’s been under the microscope for quite awhile, but clearly it’s gotten bigger as the stages get bigger and he gets a little bit older.”
Bedard of North Vancouver, B.C., hasn’t let up since the world junior tournament with 16 goals and eight assists in seven WHL games.
“I guess if it’s possible, (he’s) even more focused and more driven and he’s determined to play in playoff games with us and I think that’s the biggest driver of him right now,” Paddock said.
“That’s what he wants.”
The Pats (22-21-2-1) were tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference with 19 games remaining in their regular season.
Bedard being held off the scoresheet in the NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 26 in Langley, B.C. — also a sellout — is unlikely to dent his stock for the June 28 draft in Nashville, Tenn.
His game-changing abilities in Halifax, competing with and against players two years older, solidified top-prospect status.
Bedard’s three-deke overtime goal in a quarterfinal win over Slovakia had Canadian fans in the building and watching at home both exhaling with relief and marvelling at his skill.
“When you get to be with all those guys, the best players in the country and playing against the best players in the world, it always helps,” the Pats’ captain said.
“You can always learn a lot and I think I was able to do that.”
Bedard says striving for the playoffs is on his mind more at this point of the season than hearing his name called first by an NHL club in Nashville.
“That would be pretty special. It’s February now. It’s pretty far away,” he said.
“I’m not thinking about that, but obviously it would be pretty cool.”
—Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press