How the NHL's Connor Bedard strategy will change the sport forever

How the NHL's Connor Bedard strategy will change the sport forever originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

From the moment the Vegas Golden Knights hoisted the Stanley Cup back in June, the National Hockey League shifted its focus up North to a kid named Connor Bedard.

Hockey fans had known about Bedard for years. Dubbed "the future of hockey" at age 13, the Canadian prodigy was the sport's most talked about prospect since 2015.

That prospect, of course, was Connor McDavid.

McDavid was perhaps the most highly-anticipated player the sport had ever seen — a physical marvel with electric speed and stunning lateral movement who would change the sport forever. Through his first eight years in the league, he pretty much has.

He's immeasurably better than the next best player in the league, and yet if you turn to the person behind you in the grocery line and ask him or her if they know who Connor McDavid is, even the average American sports fan is not guaranteed to say "yes."

It's a problem the NHL is actively trying to fix.

In 2021, the NHL reached rights agreements with both ESPN and Turner Sports (now known as Warner Bros. Discovery Sports).

"Not only will this groundbreaking, seven-year deal enable the NHL to benefit from the incomparable power, reach and influence of The Walt Disney Company and ABC/ESPN, it sets a new standard in delivering our game to the most passionate and tech-savvy fans in sports in the ways they now demand and on the platforms they use," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement when the deal with ESPN was announced.

Shortly after acquiring the rights to 72 regular season NHL games — as well as the Winter Classic, a split portion of playoff rounds, and alternating rights to the Stanley Cup Final with ESPN — TNT announced the hiring of Wayne Gretzky as its lead studio analyst. Personality figures like Paul Bissonnette and Henrik Lundqvist signed on, as well. The goal was clearly to emulate the network's highly successful "Inside the NBA" program, which thrives off the popularity and banter of its well-established hosts and has transcended into must-see pop-culture content.

In a similar vein, the NHL began using its ESPN partnership to market players to a much larger, more diverse audience. While this isn't the league's first alliance with ESPN, which aired games throughout portions of the '80s, 90s' and early '00s, the NHL is making obvious efforts to expose the sport at a level it hadn't before.

One avenue, in particular, the NHL is leveraging is "The Pat McAfee Show."

Pat McAfee, who is perhaps the most relevant pundit in today's sports media landscape, began licensing his show to ESPN in September under a multiyear deal reportedly worth over eight figures. The show airs daily on ESPN television, ESPN+ and YouTube, which McAfee said gives him better access to production assets and league rights capabilities.

On Wednesday's episode, McAfee talked with former NHL player and ESPN analyst P.K. Subban about how instrumental ESPN will be in evolving the sport of hockey and the way it's covered.

"The game is at an all-time high right now," Subban said. "I think ESPN has done a great job of highlighting the superstars. I think that's where hockey has been behind in the past.

"But you look at Connor Bedard, he's been front and center the first couple of weeks in hockey, and everybody in the world knows who he is now. And they're going to know more about him as the season goes on because he's an unbelievable talent, he's going to help drive revenue for the NHL, bring new people into the game. But his skillset is comparable to a lot of the star athletes that we see in other sports. And we just got to get that on the platform that we have here at ESPN and show the world who we are."

The NHL, to its credit, has been aggressively on board with this strategy. Every single game Bedard has played in so far has been nationally televised, with the camera set to default on the young phenom's face. Do you remember Connor McDavid's debut? Probably not. It was a road game in St. Louis that wasn't aired nationally in the United States.

"I think with the NHL, we got to continue to bring the cameras closer to these players, show who they are and highlight the individuals on the teams," Subban said. "Hockey traditionally celebrates the team and the history of the team, which is all great, but I'm sorry, when Cleveland was was winning championships, I wanted to go watch LeBron [James] play. And when Chicago was winning championships, I'm going to watch [Michael] Jordan play.

"[When the] Chicago Blackhawks are playing, I'm going to watch Connor Bedard. The NHL has got to continue to shine the lens on the individuals in the sports that are doing great things."

Bedard's debut, an ESPN primetime matchup against his childhood idol Sidney Crosby, drew an average viewership count of 1.43 million, making it the most watched regular season NHL game in cable television history, excluding the Winter Classic. From a local standpoint, NBC Sports Chicago's first two games this season averaged a household rating of 2.0 in the Chicago market, a 233% increase from last season's first two games.

The league finally seems to understand that a sport is only as popular as its biggest star. Now, the strategy is crystal clear: every casual sports fan in America will know Bedard's name.

That's why McAfee booked Connor Bedard on his show as a guest a few weeks ago, right before the season started. It was a brilliant opportunity to introduce hockey's newest celebrity to the average American sports fan. Hockey players don't have the best reputation when it comes to, for lack of a better word, personality. It's another hurdle the league has to overcome. A guy like Bedard, who has already impressed a lot of people with his sense of humor and quick banter, is the perfect guy to chop it up on live TV with ESPN's biggest star.

"It does feel like the hockey culture for a long time has been very tight-lipped," McAfee said to Subban on Wednesday. "You had a personality. You're outgoing. You're chit-chatting, telling stories. Hockey people never did that. Connor Bedard coming on our show, I thought was a massive deal.

"Connor [Bedard] being in Chicago is a big f**king deal. It's the third largest city in the United States of America. They have a very deep hockey history. They have not been great for a long time. And he's supposed to be the next guy. That's huge for hockey."

He's right. It's a big f**king deal.

The rare diamond from North Vancouver belongs to the NHL.

They have a responsibility to the sport of hockey to capitalize on it.

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