Impressed and freaked out by Connor Bedard’s acceptance of pressure

I’m still recovering from ESPN’s extravagant lead-in to Connor Bedard’s NHL debut Tuesday night. It featured a narrator with a dramatic voice talking about stars, solar systems and galaxies, and if you were left with the feeling that the 18-year-old Blackhawks rookie was not of this world, that was the idea.

“And now, saddled with the expectations to be not just a minor star but a major one, look skyward to find Connor Bedard,’’ the man said over music possibly written with the birth of the universe in mind. 

Let’s just go ahead and appoint ESPN the chief saddler.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or terrified by Bedard’s complete acceptance of the onus that the league and the network has placed on him. What teenager has the tools to deal with what everyone seems to be asking of him – that he become not just the player to lead the league into a new golden age but that maybe, pretty please, he turn into the best player ever?

When I was 18, I was familiar with the broad concept of responsibility but not with the concept of practicing it. If you had thrust me into what Bedard has been thrust into, you wouldn’t have looked skyward to find me. You would have looked gutter-ward. Or psyche ward-ward.

Bedard? He does every interview as if he’s a 15-year pro. ESPN had the kid and the veteran, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, sit down in uniform together and discuss the meaning of a player’s NHL debut. It made me vaguely uncomfortable – not for the old-school reason that Bedard hadn’t done anything yet to deserve such a lofty seat but out of concern that he might not be able to breathe by the time that night’s Hawks-Penguins game started. My goodness, the pressure.

Then the puck dropped, and it became clear that Bedard’s lungs were working very well, as were his legs and most definitely his arms. I don’t know if he was born for this, but I do know that he’s not shy about taking a shot. Even untrained eyes could see that he has a rare combination of speed, power and feel for the game. He notched his first career assist in the Hawks’ 4-2 victory.

If the buildup is correct, 20 years from now, his rushes up the ice will be remembered as the gift that Chicago lucked into.

Look at me, feeding the hype beast.

I’ve been writing about sports for 40 years, and I can’t remember this much buildup for one player’s arrival. Part of it is the world we live in now, with social media making everything larger and networks putting billions of dollars into selling their products. No one involved is asking the question, “Are we doing this young person an injustice?’’ They’re saying, “If we’re wrong on Bedard, we’ll use our overwrought language on someone else.’’

The strange part is that, of the four major sports in this country, hockey is the most buttoned-up. Players are raised on a diet of humility and teamwork. The NHL shies away from the ostentatious. And, yet, this.

Nothing about Bedard’s responses to any of the questions he has entertained since the Hawks drafted him No. 1 overall this year suggest he’s a bragger or that he craves the attention. But he clearly grasps that he has been called upon to carry the league to greater heights. He seems ready to carry out his responsibilities, as obediently as if someone had asked him to take out the dog each morning. This gets back to the earlier point: What 18-year-old does that? Well, Jonathan Toews might have, had he been called upon. But the captain never had this much pressure and this much attention in the early days.

Bedard looks every bit his age, maybe younger. He has a boy’s face and a man’s game, and it’s jarring to see that wrapped up in one neat package. Like a lot of precocious talents, he and his family have been aiming for this for most of his life. He’s been a star at every level. When he was younger, he studied how Crosby handled news conferences and dealt with fans.

When I was younger, I studied baseball cards.

What’s clear is that there’s no slowing this roll. Whatever happens, good or bad, the cameras will be all over Bedard from now on. We’ll be along for the spaceship ride, hoping for the best. If what the league and ESPN is telling us is true, that means superstardom and multiple Stanley Cups.

No pressure, young Luke Skywalker.

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