Connor Bedard wasn’t nervous when he pulled on a Team Canada sweater and stepped onto the ice at the World Junior championships, the weight of a hockey-mad country’s expectations resting squarely on his shoulders. He wasn’t nervous when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly kept flipping over placards with NHL team logos on them after the draft lottery, Bedard’s fate and his future resting face-down at the bottom of the pile. Honestly, he wasn’t even all that nervous the first time he donned a Chicago Blackhawks jersey in a real game and settled in at the opening faceoff dot against his idol, Pittsburgh Penguins megastar Sidney Crosby.

Hockey’s familiar. Hockey’s comfortable. Connor Bedard knows hockey.

But standing in the entryway of Nick Foligno’s house in Chicago on a September evening, fidgeting and shuffling and making meager attempts at small talk with Nick and his wife, Janelle, who had invited the new guy over for a nice family dinner?

Yeah, Bedard was nervous.

“I don’t think (it’s) intimidating,” Bedard said of his first forays into the world of grown-ups. “I didn’t know anyone, so you’re kind of nervous about that. Just how I’m going to fit in and stuff.”

The way Foligno remembers it, Bedard quickly started talking about hockey and seemed almost desperate to put some kind of sports on television to focus on. Hey, Foligno might be 36 years old now, but he was a young hockey player once. He remembers being in the Ontario Hockey League as a teenage standout, watching NHL games every night and flipping to the “On The Fly” highlight show on NHL Network. He wasn’t having grand conversations about life and family and the world over elegant dinners. So he knew how awkward this was for Bedard.

Then Foligno’s three kids barreled down the hallway, immediately challenging the world’s most famous 18-year-old hockey player to a game of mini-sticks. Bedard was on his knees battling for loose pucks almost instantly.

“That just broke the ice,” Foligno said. “He’s just goofing around with them, and they’re loving it, they’re laughing. Then while they’re playing, I said to Janelle, ‘You know, I think he’s closer to their age than mine.’”

That’s how it hits you — suddenly, out of nowhere, frequently. Bedard’s 18. Won’t turn 19 until July 17, closer to the start of next season than the end of this one. He’s the 14th-youngest player in NHL history. Yes, he already has one of the two or three best shots in the world. Yes, he’s the Blackhawks’ No. 1 center, a regular presence on national television, at the center of both his team’s and his league’s marketing campaigns. Yes, he speaks with the polish and poise of someone who’s been talking to reporters regularly for nearly five years. Which he has.

But he is 18. Some of his co-workers are nearly twice his age. Some of his closest friends on the team are in their mid-20s, grown men with families. And yet, somehow, Bedard fits right in. He belongs.

Bedard entered the NHL as possibly the most hyped prospect ever. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux predated the Information Age, Crosby broke in before the social-media hype ecosystem existed, and few outside of Canada and the true hockey diehards in the States really knew all that much about Connor McDavid before the Edmonton Oilers drafted him. But hockey fans had been bombarded by Bedard’s brilliance for two full years by the time he was drafted — his gifts and his GIFs endlessly looping on feeds and in brains around the hockey world. The hype was out of control, the expectations unfair, the burdens and pressures simply crushing.

And yet, as Bedard wraps up his first pro season, he’s done something even more difficult than scoring that lacrosse goal in St. Louis or picking a corner on Sergei Bobrovsky: He’s lived up to it all.

“I think what he experienced is unlike anything we’ve seen any rookie (experience), maybe ever in our game,” Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson said. “And the way he handled it, the way he didn’t let it impact anything on the ice, didn’t let it impact how he went about his business — it’s extremely impressive.”

Connor Bedard has lived up to his considerable hype. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

Bedard doesn’t wear a hat and sunglasses when he’s at the grocery store, or popping out for a quick bite somewhere in the city.

“I wear my jersey, signed and everything,” he quipped. “No, I’m not trying to hide too much. Maybe I have my head down sometimes if I see someone might be coming over, but no, I don’t mind getting recognized.”

It’s something the previous generation’s stars — Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, in particular — always appreciated about the city. Oh, they see you. They know who you are. But they won’t lose their minds about it. Maybe they’ll ask for a quick picture with their kids. Maybe they’ll just tell you how much they appreciate you. But it’s quick and it’s painless, a pleasant reminder that being a beloved star hockey player in a huge city is, in fact, pretty cool.

There’s nothing normal about Bedard’s situation. But moments of normalcy are precious, and Bedard’s teammates have made a point of treating him like any other player.

“I haven’t been in his shoes with what he has to deal with from a day-to-day basis, and what he feels personally on and off the ice,” teammate Taylor Raddysh said. “So … I try to be there for him if he ever wants it, to just help him just be a normal person in his day-to-day life.”

Raddysh, a 26-year-old teammate who lives in the same apartment building as Bedard, has become one of his closest friends in Chicago. When Bedard broke his jaw on a hit by New Jersey’s Brendan Smith on Jan. 5, Raddysh and his wife stayed in Bedard’s apartment that night — a welcome comfort for a teenager living on his own.

Foligno, on the other hand, has been both big brother and surrogate dad. Nobody gives Bedard more grief for his lengthy pregame routines and his complete lack of pop-culture knowledge, and nobody puts in as much time to shape Bedard, to help him find perspective and peace, to prepare him mentally and physically for the rigors of life in the NHL. Foligno broke into the league just shy of his 20th birthday and raves about how Ottawa Senators teammates Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly and Wade Redden took him under their wings.

Bedard calls his actual dad, Tom, after every game to break down his play and just chat. But he has to listen to his hockey dad all day, every day.

Foligno was caught on mic on the Blackhawks bench one game lamenting to Bedard that he’ll need to stick around “like five more years after I retire” to teach the kid all the things he needed to teach him. Foligno could have been talking about how to handle being a captain (which Bedard inevitably will be), how to ensure a long career, how to cheat just enough to win faceoffs against the league’s best. But no, he was talking about the Freddie Mercury call-and-response clip that was playing at the United Center during the TV timeout.

“He didn’t know who Freddie Mercury was!” Foligno said. “Oh, man, I was pissed. … If he doesn’t watch some movies over the summer, I’m gonna snap.”

But it’s the mental side of stardom that Foligno has focused on. Early in the season, Foligno saw how hard Bedard took every loss (and there have been a lot of them; Chicago has tied a 70-year-old franchise record with 51 losses after bottoming out to improve their chances of landing Bedard in the first place). Like Toews 17 years earlier, Bedard stewed on every mistake and took his work home with him. He blamed himself for every loss, even when he scored a goal or two.

“He wants the pressure, and it’s impressive,” Foligno said. “But it can’t be (to the point) where it squashes him. Sometimes those guys take on so much because they want it, but they don’t realize that it’s paralyzing them at the same time. That’s the balance he has to find in the NHL. Some of the burdens, you don’t have to carry. He wants to score every night. The best players do. And we need him to if we’re going to have success. But when he doesn’t make that one play, and he’s got two goals in the game but he’s obsessing over the one he didn’t make — I get it, you’re a perfectionist. But that’s taking you away from your next shift. You have to have a short memory. And maybe the next one you put in, because you’re not thinking about the last one. Those are the little things you’re trying to teach him as a pro.”

Still, it’s that singular preoccupation with the game that has helped Bedard become the player he is. He’s obsessed with greatness, and he knows he’s capable of it. Early in the season, when Bedard had just one goal in his first five games, a reporter asked if maybe he was shooting from too far away, if perhaps he couldn’t get away with the things he got away with in junior hockey. The numbers backed it up; he was shooting from nearly twice as far on average as Toronto’s Auston Matthews, the best goal-scorer in the game.

“I’ve got a good shot,” he said, more defiant than defensive.

Sure enough, he scored eight goals in the next seven games.

Bedard’s rink-rat nature is already the stuff of legends. On practice days, he’ll stay out on the ice for nearly an hour after his teammates head in for the day, working on skills with other young standouts such as linemate Philipp Kurashev and fellow top-10 pick Kevin Korchinski. When he was out with a broken jaw, he was still skating nearly every day.

“Just kind of grew the love for the game,” he said. “Now, (I’m) kind of a nerd, it’s kind of all I do. It’s something I enjoy. I have a passion to try and be the best I can, like everyone in the league.”

But unlike everyone in the league, he’s doing it under the most glaring of spotlights. Over the summer, Blackhawks president of business Jaime Faulkner said the team was wary of putting Bedard front-and-center because he was so young and the expectations were so high. But ticket sales were even higher, so Bedard organically became the centerpiece of the Blackhawks’ marketing campaign. His was the only jersey available at the team-store kiosk in training camp. His face was on billboards throughout the city. Even when he was hurt, Bedard participated in the All-Star Game, and announced on national TV that the Blackhawks would host next year’s Winter Classic at Wrigley Field.

“I think we were pretty committed at the beginning of the season that we were not going to put a lot of pressure on him,” Faulkner said. “I would say we never heavily marketed around him, but the reality is anytime he appeared in our content, the engagement just went off the charts.”

Connor Bedard has stated his desire to grow hockey in Chicago and beyond. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Since the NHL Draft lottery last May, the Blackhawks have had a 10 percent increase in Instagram followers, to 1.8 million. A recent goal of Bedard against the Arizona Coyotes on Instagram drew 1.5 million views. There’s been a 20 percent increase in subscribers to their YouTube page, which now has 87,300. They’ve seen a 25 percent increase in TikTok followers, up to 655,600. A TikTok post featuring Bedard and San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama — a meeting that stemmed from a Spurs request — has 8.5 million views. And as bad as the Blackhawks have been this season, they’ve had the fourth-highest attendance in the league, averaging nearly 19,000 fans a game.

His agent, Greg Landry, pointed to All-Star weekend as an example of Bedard’s understanding of his place in the game. Most players would rather spend a few days on the beach in Mexico than show up for All-Star Weekend in Canada in February. But Bedard, still injured, participated in the skills competition and made the media rounds.

“He’s obviously a big name, and it was in Toronto, and (there) was a lot of attention on hockey,” Landry said. “And I think he felt it was the right thing to do, to be there (and) help grow the game through that event. He definitely gets it from that perspective.”

While the Maple Leafs largely shielded Matthews from the voracious Toronto press during his rookie season (when he was 19), Bedard talks to reporters more than any other Blackhawks player.

“I think for the organization and the league, if I can help grow it and have a positive impact, (I’ll do it),” Bedard said. “I remember being a kid and seeing people do similar stuff. I enjoy doing a lot of it. Any way I can help out in that way, I’m happy to do it — obviously to an extent, with the hockey No. 1.”

All the outside noise and distractions exist because of what Bedard can do on the ice. And while his 61 points in 67 games is a far cry from Crosby’s 102 points in 81 games as a teenage rookie, it’s still impressive given the lack of elite talent surrounding him. He leads NHL rookies in goals (22), assists (39) and points (61) despite missing 14 games with the broken jaw. He’s turned Kurashev, a defensive-minded bottom-six center, into an 18-goal, 54-point top-line winger. He’s helped turn back the clock on Foligno, who’s frequently on the top line alongside Bedard and has 17 goals, his most since 2018-19.

Bedard draws opponents’ toughest matchups night after night. He’s seven months into the longest season of his hockey career. He’s facing the best goalies in the world, the best defensemen in the world, the best coaches in the world. Yet he keeps producing.

“You forget how young he is,” Davidson said. “In the maturation of players coming into pro, from 18 to 21, there’s so much growth that occurs in that time, and so much improvement for most players occurs in that time. And for him to come in, 18 years old — like a fresh 18-year-old — it’s incredible.”

He’s far from a perfect player. His defensive deficiencies are glaring some nights. The Blackhawks have been outscored 65-36 at five-on-five when Bedard has been on the ice. Some hockey traditionalists look at his minus-41 rating and want to hand the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s best rookie, to Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber, who is less offensive-minded but more well-rounded (and three years older).

Foligno said that aspect of his game is the next step in Bedard’s evolution. And again, Crosby’s name was invoked, as it so often is in conversations about Bedard. Foligno said that in Crosby’s early years, he was “all-out offense.” But once he learned to be a complete player, “there was no stopping him.”

“I think the second half of the season, he’s not only handled it well but he’s stepped up his game, his whole game, his whole 200-foot game,” said Richardson, who broke into the league as an 18-year-old defenseman.

At 18, Connor Bedard is already the Blackhawks’ best player, and he has room to grow. (Harry How / Getty Images)

So what will Year 2 look like for Bedard, as a wizened 19-year-old? More goals. More assists. More wins. Maybe a little more defense. And probably more billboards, more interviews.

“He wants to be great,” Raddysh said. “It’s got to be tiring and demanding on him, but I feel like he just never seems to get tired. It’s definitely a mental and physical battle for him. (But) he loves the game, and loves to try to get himself better every day.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Jeff Haynes / Getty; Jamie Sabau, Scott Olson / NBAE)

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