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Brian Bellows has a philosophy that has served him well over the years. It’s about handling the pressures and demands of a life in hockey, about knowing yourself and your limitations.
“You’ve got to understand what league you’re in,” said Bellows, a veteran of 1,188 NHL games. “You’ve got to know whether you’re in the rookie league, the JV league or the varsity.”
He’s talking about drinking.
And he’s talking about being 18 years old in the NHL.
“I came up in the ’80s,” Bellows said with a laugh. “It’s not like they checked a lot of IDs back then. Everyone went out together, and made sure they hung out.”
Bellows wasn’t just an 18-year-old in the NHL, he was a very young 18-year-old. His first NHL game came in Winnipeg when he was just 18 years, 36 days old — an adult, but barely. Just like Connor Bedard is now, having turned 18 a couple of weeks after the Chicago Blackhawks made him the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft. Bedard himself says it all the time: “I’m just an 18-year-old kid.”
But he’s playing in a professional sports league. With and against men, some of whom are old enough to be his father (looking at you, Corey Perry). Making as much as $4.45 million this season.
Lazerus: Connor Bedard does the unthinkable and lives up to the hype in his NHL debut
Only 61 players in the history of the NHL have played at least 60 games in their 18-year-old season. Only 28 of them were so young that they didn’t even turn 19 by the end of the season. Only 13 were younger than Bedard, whose birthday is July 17. And there’s a big difference between being an almost-19-year-old and a just-turned-18-year-old in terms of emotional and physical maturity.
How does someone so young hang with grown men? Not on the ice; it’s pretty clear that Bedard has an NHL-ready shot, NHL-ready vision and an NHL-ready body. He’s not some hopeless, spindly, scrawny little kid out there. One preseason and two games into his NHL career, he already has one of the best shots in the league, has made jaw-dropping passes and toe-drags, and has held up fine physically.
But how will he hang off the ice? With the rigors of an NHL schedule, with living semi-independently, with the social life of a professional athlete? Will he be able to hold his own over dinner conversation with grown adults? Will he have to stay back in the hotel when the boys want to grab a beer or three? And what is he going to do with an off night in Las Vegas this month? Go to the M&M’S store?
It’s something Bedard will have to figure out. Because hockey’s a social sport, and hockey players are almost aggressively social animals.
“Hanging out together was mandatory,” said Eddie Olczyk, who debuted with his hometown Blackhawks just 55 days after turning 18 in 1984. “I loved that, learning that and being able to pass that on — the importance of camaraderie. You land in a city at 5 o’clock and it’s, ‘OK, we’re all meeting at 6 to go out.’ The world is much different now; we understand that. But getting to know your teammates is huge, regardless of if they have one bean bag and a PlayStation in their apartment or if you’re going to somebody’s house that has three kids and new furniture and you’re eating at the dining-room table. You’ve got to be able to want to be a part of every demographic.”
The good news for Bedard is that it’s not the 1980s anymore. The ubiquity of social media and camera phones has changed everything. Heck, even just 10 or 15 years ago, the Blackhawks would roll into Nashville and pour into Tootsie’s or Legends Corner by the dozen, drinking and carousing and singing along to country songs before sweating out the beer and bourbon at the morning skate the next day.
But the 1980s were something else. These days, teams leave a road rink and head straight for the airport for a chartered late-night flight home. Back in the ’80s, teams left a road rink and headed straight for the bar.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, we stayed overnight almost 99 percent of the time,” Bellows said. “Can you imagine that? Then you wake up the next day at 6 to catch an 8 o’clock commercial flight through Chicago. (North Stars general manager) Lou Nanne set up a deal where, every time we went east, it was on American Airlines and we had to go through O’Hare. So not only were you flying commercial, you were connecting.”
So instead of sweating out the booze on the ice, the North Stars were doing it on the plane. On a commercial flight, no less. Even short flights felt like long ones after the kind of nights these guys were having. Partying wasn’t only encouraged, it was mandated.
“(North Stars coach) Glen Sonmor used to say, ‘If we win a game in Chicago, I don’t want to see anyone come in before me, or you’re fined,’” Bellows said. “And if you know the story of Glen Sonmor, you know that was pretty late. I’m a kid. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ Because you kind of think it’s going to be more — I don’t know if ‘professional’ is the word, but more like it is now. More disciplined. It was not. That’s why I said, you’ve got to know where your level is and stick to it. Pick your group, and choose wisely.”
For the record, Bellows said he started out in the rookie league and never graduated past JV.
For Olczyk, it was a double-whammy. Not only was he too young to drink, he didn’t drink. Still doesn’t. So as a freshly turned 18-year-old, he’d find his way into the Snuggery in Chicago’s Gold Coast and start nursing a Diet Pepsi. Those visits to the bar could get rather uncomfortable. Even diabolical.
“I was pressured, and I was roughed up because I didn’t drink, and I had my drinks spiked a couple of times, which wasn’t very cool,” said Olczyk, who still lived at home during his first two seasons. “But I was able to deal with it. My rookie year, the Cubs were in the playoffs and the Bears were on the come-up, about to do the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.’ Running with that crowd when I was 18, I was one lucky you-know-what. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. But I had some great mentors, none better than the great Troy Murray, who I love more than anybody. Troy took me under his wing and showed me a rope or a hundred.”
Indeed, every great young star needs a savvy veteran (or several savvy veterans) to guide him, mentor him and, yes, protect him. Patrick Marleau was the second-youngest player in modern NHL history when he made his San Jose Sharks debut just 16 days after he turned 18 on Sept. 15, 1997. Marleau lived with veteran goaltender Kelly Hrudey and his family, which greatly eased his transition into adulthood. Marleau rattled off a laundry list of additional mentors, including Murray Craven (33 years old), Doug Bodger (31), Todd Gill (31), Mike Vernon (34) and Marty McSorley (34).
“I had all the support in the world with the veteran guys,” Marleau said. “After games, we’d talk about the game, we’d go over plays, and they were very supportive — ‘You’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that.’ I got a sense that there was a protection aspect. I don’t know if it was a father-son thing, but they were like, ‘We need to look after this young guy.’”
The current Blackhawks are much younger than those Sharks, with Kevin Korchinski (19), Lukas Reichel (21), Wyatt Kaiser (21) and Alex Vlasic (22) from Bedard’s generation. But there’s a reason 35-year-old Nick Foligno is on this team. Foligno, who broke into the league as a 19-year-old himself, is everybody’s big brother, but he knows he’s here to help bring Bedard along. Olczyk went so far as to call Foligno the best free-agent signing in the league this past summer, just because of the impact he’s sure to have on Bedard’s career.
Talk to Foligno for even 30 seconds, and you’ll quickly see why.
“You’ve got to let him be 18,” Foligno said. “You can’t try to make him grow up so fast. I think this league already does that. It’s understanding that, all right, this kid can’t do stuff. So there’s a sacrifice you make as a teammate, right? ‘All right, I’m going to stay behind and enjoy a nice dinner with him and not go out after that.’ Honestly, the league has changed a lot, where that’s just the norm now. It’s important that he understands that, too, that it’s OK to just be yourself. I want him to feel comfortable. Same for a lot of the young guys. The best rooms are the ones you can just be yourself in. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing that with a lot of other guys in the room, too — making sure guys feel comfortable about being themselves.”
Foligno then paused, and smiled.
“He’s an 18-year-old kid, but he’s pretty educated,” he said. “He doesn’t play video games. It’s kind of nice that I don’t have to listen to that video-game talk. I am tired of that ‘Fortnite’ stuff.”
Being a professional hockey player is more than just drinking, of course. Especially in 2023. Players treat their bodies like temples. They order bottled water with their chicken, sweet potatoes and vegetables, and make sure to get nine hours of sleep the night before a game. And when they do drink, they do it in back rooms with muscle in the doorways to keep them off social media. Bedard will be fine in that regard. He won’t be pressured or pushed into anything he doesn’t want to do. Foligno and Perry will make sure of it.
But there’s an emotional maturity that’s a prerequisite for success in the NHL, one that few teenagers possess. Of course, few teenagers make it to the NHL at all. The ones who do are well-acquainted with the spotlight. Olczyk — who had the added pressure of being the hometown hero — spent the season before his rookie year playing against men with the U.S. Olympic team in the Central Professional Hockey League and in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Marleau had left home two years earlier to play junior hockey. Bellows said he felt more like a “young man” than a kid. “An older teen, at least.”
So facing a phalanx of reporters from Chicago, Pittsburgh and all over the country before his NHL debut Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena, Bedard shrugged it all off. After all, he’s been doing daily press scrums since he was 14 and did his first interview at 12. After just three weeks of training camp, he already seems looser, more comfortable, chattier.
“I find it pretty simple, to be honest,” he said.
But how will Bedard handle the ups and downs he’ll surely face in the NHL? The Blackhawks likely will be in the mix for another top-five pick next summer. How will he cope with the losing streaks? How will he be affected the first time he goes three straight games without a point? He’s used to complete domination. He had 81 goals and 82 assists in just 64 games for the WHL’s Regina Pats last season, including the playoffs.
It won’t be nearly as easy in the NHL. In four preseason games, he had four assists but just one goal — an empty-netter that seemed to make him somehow angrier because it wasn’t a spectacular highlight.
“Once you have some success individually and the team is winning, things just seem to fall into place,” Olczyk said. “But it takes time. It’s no different than any young player coming in. At every other level, it was pretty much domination, scoring and feeling good. So when you go three or four games and the puck isn’t going into the back of the net and your team’s not winning, it’s tough. The psychological part of it was probably the most challenging for me. I wanted to do so well because I was playing for the Hawks, my hometown team. It was just added pressure. You’ve got to learn how to deal with that.”
Then there are new and more convoluted systems to grasp, new terminology to master, 31 teams of new opponents to learn, 31 arenas worth of rink quirks to figure out. It can be overwhelming for an 18-year-old.
“Growing up, you don’t play too much defense,” Marleau said. “It takes a while to grasp it all and to understand why you’re doing certain plays, why you’re playing a certain way. All those little details that go into winning a game. For me, it was important to have the mentality that I was just hungry to learn. ‘What else can I do? What else can I apply to my game?’ Looking back, you don’t realize how raw and young you were and all the things you didn’t know.”
Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson, who entered the league at 18 years old himself, gets that and is making a concerted effort to keep his youngest player from getting too far inside his own head. Yes, fans love the videos of Bedard working on his shot an hour after practice ended, the rink rat toiling away. But even as young as he is, Bedard needs to have some perspective, too.
So after that empty-netter in the preseason, which Bedard greeted with a grimace, Richardson used it as a teaching opportunity.
“He’s kind of a humble guy, he doesn’t want to celebrate that (goal),” Richardson said. “He wants to score a nice goal and I don’t know if he even counts those. But I count them. There are no pictures in the goal column, it’s just the number. … I think he’s hard on himself, so we’re going to have to lighten him up and make sure he enjoys these times. Because wins in the NHL are hard to come by, and once it starts for real, they’re really hard to come by. We have to make sure we enjoy the night and have a little fun when you win a game. A couple of those hiccups when we missed an open net or fell down on a 2-on-0, we have to make some humor out of that and make it fun to come to the rink the next day — not tense and grinding the stick. There’s enough of that. We don’t need to put more of that on ourselves.”
Bedard is one of the youngest players in NHL history, a boy among men. “Just a kid,” in his own words. Not too long ago, he’d be dragged to bars whether he wanted to be or not. He’d be told not to speak unless he was spoken to, whether in the locker room or at a team dinner. He’d be targeted almost every night by opponents’ goons for having the unmitigated gall to think he belonged in the NHL at such a young age.
But it’s different now. The league is a little softer, a lot healthier and a bit more enlightened. Bedard already commands respect from his older teammates in the room, and it seems inevitable he’ll have a letter on his jersey before long. He has big brothers all over the locker room, none more gregarious and protective than Foligno. He has that preternatural confidence that allows him to handle the pressure, the expectations, the spotlight. And he knows himself, knows what he’s capable of, what his limits — if he has any — are.
He’s not in the rookie league. He’s not on the JV. He’s varsity, and he knows it. Because age is nothing but a number.
“At that age, you don’t think you know as little as you do,” Bellows said with a chuckle. “But you can’t teach what he has. I’m excited to see him play. He’s really going to be something.”
(Top photo of Connor Bedard and Nick Foligno: Justin Berl / Getty Images)