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Hockey’s Connor Bedard: The buzz, business and benefits

How Vancouver’s homegrown superstar could have a local impact
North Vancouver's Connor Bedard is expected to be the top pick in June's NHL draft

The Bedard buzz is real. And there is a chance – albeit a remote one – that Connor Bedard could start his National Hockey League (NHL) career in his home market.

The North Vancouver hockey phenom, fresh from shattering records at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Juniors’ tournament and leading Team Canada to the gold medal, could land with the Vancouver Canucks if the team misses the playoffs and wins the NHL draft lottery. 

The chances: 6.5 per cent entering play on Jan. 10.

Bedard, only 17, is projected as this year’s top entry-draft prospect. He is the most-hyped hockey player to enter the NHL since superstar Connor McDavid was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015.

The possibility of luckily drafting Bedard has not been lost on Canucks fans. Many of them are even hoping the team deteriorates as the season progresses to improve its lottery chances. Though there’s a slim chance of it happening, the potential impact this once-in-a-generation superstar could have in his home market is sizable.

“If it did happen, it would be an explosion of endorsement upside, sponsorship upside that we’ve never seen before in British Columbia,” said Tom Mayenknecht, a marketing and communications executive and a leading commentator on sports business in B.C. and Western Canada. “It’s really the sense of attachment that would exist between fans and someone like Bedard, who’s North Vancouver born-and-bred.

“People put a higher value on a player simply because he is ‘one of us,’ and that translates into a lot of local and regional marketing opportunities that would be heightened if he lands in any of the seven Canadian NHL markets – but would also be at its pinnacle it was Vancouver.” 

The Bedard buzz is – logically – strongest in North Vancouver. Cam Paddock, director of hockey at North Shore Winter Club and a former NHL player, said there is an unmistakable level of excitement in the community regarding Bedard’s success, even if few of them talk openly about it.

“In the summertime, when he and [Port Moody native] Kent Johnson won the World Juniors that was postponed to the summer, there were a ton of kids hanging around the club,” Paddock said, noting there is certainly a sentiment of wanting to “be like Bedard.” 

“A lot of these kids know him from the neighbourhood. They see him in the summer, and they need somebody to look up to, to strive to be as good as – or better than.”

On the daily Sekeres & Price Vancouver sports podcast, fans’ enthusiasm is self-evident. Sports journalist Matt Sekeres, the show’s co-founder and co-host, said conversations about Bedard have proliferated in recent weeks as the Canucks struggle again to lift themselves over the playoff bar.

If the team misses the playoffs this year, it would be for the eighth time in 10 seasons – with one of their playoff appearances in a COVID-shortened play-in tournament of 24 teams (instead of the usual 16).

“Connor Bedard, to some degree, represents salvation,” Sekeres said. “Take a look at the way this [Canucks] season is going. I have gotten the sense all year long that fans just find this team unlikable ... and it’s hitting a breaking point where the business of the Canucks [i.e. ticket and merchandise sales] may suffer.

“You’ve had superstar players coming to teams and making huge impacts on the viability of their franchises,” Sekeres added. “Now, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to the Canucks, because the team is not in any danger of moving. But when you think of it in those terms, you get a sense of the enormity of what a player of that stature can do for a team, a franchise, a market.”

One star can make – or break – a franchise

Mayenknecht, who founded The Sport Market national talk show in 2008, knows the exact example to outline Bedard’s potential impact (and financial stakes) to Vancouver – but it isn’t a happy one for most local fans.

Prior to creating his talk show, Mayenknecht was the former vice president of communications with the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Vancouver Grizzlies from 1995 to 1996. He remembered vividly the 1996 NBA entry draft in New Jersey – when a six-foot-three point guard from Victoria was among the top 20 prospects.

“A lot of our senior marketing team and communications team was telling [then-GM] Stu Jackson that, if you get a pick anywhere close to Steve Nash, let’s go for it because it would have a massive impact on the franchise,” Mayenknecht said. “People would have been drawn to a B.C. boy on the Grizzlies. It would have done a lot for tickets sales and merchandising. That Steve Nash jersey would have outsold that of either Big Country [Bryant Reeves] or Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

“That would be the case with Connor Bedard. That Canucks jersey – with whatever number he chooses – would have sales numbers through the roof. That jersey would be absolute gold in this market if he wound up as a Canuck.”

Incidentally, the Grizzlies selected Abdur-Rahim with the third pick in that 1996 draft, followed by pick 22 Roy Rogers. Nash, drafted at pick 15 by the Phoenix Suns, went on to become a perennial NBA All-Star, winning NBA MVP twice and becoming one of the best Canadian players – if not the best Canadian player – in league history. The Grizzlies, after seven abysmal seasons amid dwindling attendance, were sold and moved to Memphis in 2001.

Sekeres said it’s not a perfect comparison. The Canucks have never had first pick in the NHL entry draft, but even other hometown stars like Brendan Morrison and Cliff Ronning were strongly embraced.

There is also a small example in McDavid, who – while originating from Ontario – stayed in a Canadian market when he was drafted by the Oilers. If Bedard is already being compared to McDavid, who has been dominant as NHL’s top player for many years, the North Vancouver teen’s status is already among rarefied company.

“With all due respect to guys like Morrison and Ronning, McDavid is a cut above,” Sekeres said. “If you look at Bedard as maybe the best hockey prospect to come out of B.C., you are going down a road with names like Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer. That’s some pretty austere company.”

Earning power in a new age

According to a Forbes report in 2021, outside of team-related salary, McDavid earned $4.5 million annually from endorsements due to his consumer activations in the Canadian market. Companies linked to the star include hockey equipment maker CCM, apparel maker Adidas, CIBC, Biosteel and Canadian Tire.

Other superstars like Sidney Crosby also have endorsements in the $4.5-million range with similar corporate sponsorship profiles: CCM, Bell, Tim Hortons and Gatorade.

Bedard’s agent, Greg Landry with Newport Sports Management, did not respond to requests to discuss Bedard’s business value. But Mayenknecht said he suspects Bedard’s marketing/endorsement potential could surpass all of the above names if he were to land in Vancouver. That’s not only because of the market itself, but the current rise in non-fungible token (NFT) digital sports memorabilia environment, estimated to be at US$2.6 billion in 2022 by Market Decipher and expected to be more than $40 billion by 2032.

“With Connor Bedard, a Team Canada junior trading card [signed] is going for $14,999,” Mayenknecht said. “Another set of his stuff from the Regina Pats [Bedard’s major junior team] is at $5,000. Just his autograph alone is projected to value around $750. Those are remarkable numbers.”

In addition, while being in Vancouver would not change Bedard’s standard choice of national or global sponsors, it would create an additional “upsell” of local activation – complementary deals that use local appearances that drive additional revenue for sponsors at the local-market level unseen in other cases.

“For example, Bedard would still get the national marketing support of being, let’s say, a Tim Hortons athlete,” Mayenknecht said. “But he would get local appearance opportunities, paid for in appearance fees, to attend things like corporate functions. Let’s say he does a national deal with an automobile brand like Mercedes; the company would then make sure he was woven into local advertising, like a fit with a dealer in North Vancouver.”

The hometown factor

One person who would understand Bedard as a Vancouver Canuck would be Brendan Morrison, the Pitt Meadows native who starred as the Canucks’ centre on the famed West Coast Express line (with Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi) that dominated the league in the early 2000s.

Morrison recalled that he had his fair share of requests for public appearances from sponsors and the Canucks themselves during his eight-season tenure in Vancouver, and the fact he hailed originally from Metro Vancouver definitely meant he was more in demand for event and marketing opportunities.

“I probably got asked more than guys who weren’t from the area.... There are certain times where, maybe because I’m a local guy, we’d be asked specifically to come to an event over a guy who might not be from B.C.”

And there are benefits to players receiving this kind of sponsorship; Morrison remembers having a relationship with a local Toyota dealer – and being able to get a minivan for his growing young family. 

Of course, playing at home – and all the marketing and sponsorship attention, not to mention media and even added demand from family and friends – can also be overwhelming: A barrage of requests as he is trying to focus on playing hockey. That, Morrison said, will undoubtedly be a major balancing act for Bedard if he somehow ends up in Vancouver for his NHL career.

“One of the things I would say is, you have to make sure you surround yourself with the right people,” Morrison said, noting that his wife played an instrumental role in handling ticket requests from friends as an example. “Don’t be afraid to say no to certain things at certain times, because everyone will want a piece of you. He [Bedard] is going to be pulled in 100 different directions, and he has to realize it’s hockey that got him there – and the main focus is to be prepared to be at your best on the ice, every night.”

Marketing impact a marathon – not a sprint

Then there is the long-term effects on Vancouver’s overall hockey market if Bedard-to-the-Canucks does come to pass. North Shore Winter Club’s Paddock noted that, when Quebec native Patrick Roy began playing for the Montreal Canadiens and won the Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1986, it inspired many local children to put more attention on being goaltenders.

“It’s going to be a little bit of time until you can see the business side of that impact if Connor ends up here,” Paddock said. “But something like that is definitely going to grow the game here. If they land someone like Connor who grew up in the city, it would have an impact for sure – I would be surprised if it didn’t.”

Morrison concurs.

“When you are playing, you are not as aware of the type of impact that you’ve made on the market, hockey-wise,” he said. “But I personally haven’t lived in Vancouver for 12 years. The last time I played for the Canucks was 2007-08, so a significant amount of time has passed. But it never ceases to amaze me when I go back and spend time in Vancouver – and I spend a lot of my summer there still – and being recognized. It never gets old, and it still catches me off-guard.”

Ultimately, the potential impact of Bedard as a Canuck also depends on his career. On that, Paddock – whose career included stops at the St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins – has some advice.

“The best and most successful players are the ones who weren’t satisfied with where they were. They kept working on either correcting their weaknesses or making their strengths even better. So my advice would be to figure out where you can get better and keep working on that. Good things will happen.”

Morrison added that there is also a tremendous responsibility on the NHL club – which, in this dream scenario, would be the Canucks themselves – when it comes to protecting not only an asset, but the person himself.

Getting a player like that would be – no pun intended – literally winning the lottery,” Morrison said. “But I think it’s important – if he lands in Canada – for the team to get ahead of the narrative that he will dominate from day one. Very, very few players can do that; and maybe he will. But it’s totally unfair to hear a bunch of negativity if that doesn’t happen. He’s not even 18 yet. Keeping the public expectation in check will be huge.”