NHL's use of star rookie Connor Bedard on and off the ice have league well-positioned to take off

On the morning of the 2023 NHL Draft, Kyle Davidson blended in seamlessly with the crowd as he wandered the streets of downtown Nashville.

In a now-viral social media clip, the Chicago Blackhawks general manager even managed to partake in a two-minute, person-on-the-street interview, answering hockey trivia questions while passing as an ordinary fan, or "Kyle from Chicago."

But for Connor Bedard — the phenom selected by Chicago with the No. 1 overall draft pick that same evening in June and the lure that led Davidson to Nashville in the first place — there will be no such opportunity to go undercover.

For a league that was once thought to be lagging when it comes to promoting its star players, the early returns from Bedard’s grand entrance could dispel lingering concerns surrounding the NHL’s ability to solicit fanfare for its next generation of headliners. Because without having stepped onto the ice for any sort of meaningful action, the 18-year-old “generational talent” has already taken the hockey world by storm.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Blackhawks sold $5.2 million in new season-ticket plans in the 12 hours after winning the NHL Draft Lottery. Sports Media Watch reported that 2023 NHL Draft and 2023 Draft Lottery shows both set viewership records. There were even enough No. 98 custom jersey orders before Bedard was officially drafted that Fanatics was forced to intervene and halt sales, per The Athletic.

Bedard’s foray into the NHL came with borderline unprecedented hype, and that has translated to unprecedented attention.

“You don’t always get that name-face recognition if [players] are just walking down the street,” said Heidi Browning, the NHL’s chief marketing officer. “The fact that people see, admire and recognize Connor [Bedard] before he’s even drafted is pretty incredible.”

And while Bedard has done an admirable job of getting himself out there, one doesn’t become the face of the league this quickly without some help. Because without the NHL’s efforts to evolve with the changing media landscape, perhaps Bedard could still pass as Connor from North Vancouver.

Changing of the guard

In terms of the NHL's general, overarching approach to Bedard's arrival, it's not as if the league has employed a groundbreaking new strategy. There has certainly been a concerted effort to get the 18-year-old in front of cameras, but there is no shying away from the reality that the NHL's handling of this year's first overall draft pick hasn't been so dissimilar to that of other promising youngsters.

“Our job is always really just to introduce all the top prospects to our fans,” Browning said. “There are things that lend [Bedard] to naturally have a little more content than others, but we don’t prioritize him. We just go where the stories and stats lead us.”

But the shift that has now been illuminated by the advent of such a highly anticipated prospect is all about who’s telling these stories. Instead of putting Bedard in more traditional, rigid environments such as 1-on-1 interviews with reporters, the NHL has found creative ways to put Bedard in position to showcase his personality and provide a glimpse into the more holistic picture.

There have, of course, been some of the drier, customary appearances, but the 18-year-old's media junket has also featured stops at sites like the TNT pregame show for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, where he famously teased Paul Bissonnette, perhaps the most prominent personality in NHL media and the co-host of the renowned "Spittin' Chiclets" podcast. There was a post-draft, on-the-couch interview with Jonny Lazarus, an ascending media personality known for his colorful content, during which Bedard fielded questions about deep-dish pizza and his baseball skills. The former Regina Pats captain was even featured on "Welcome to the NHL," the league's Emmy-winning, all-access series that details the pre-draft experience of some of the top prospects.

Although Bedard has helped bring these developments to the forefront, the transformation as to the characters the NHL is utilizing to shine the spotlight on its next young stars has been years in the making. With its growing focus on attracting the next generation of fans, the league has spent the past several years consciously integrating budding personalities like Lazarus, the "Spittin’ Chiclets" crew and plenty of others into the mainstream NHL media by inviting them to marquee league events and working closely with them to grant access for content. Browning noted that this initiative has blossomed into a full-on organized program that even includes non-hockey influencers, as the NHL will look to use these individuals to continue to boost exposure.

Thus far, the results have been promising, and this forward-thinking approach has not gone unnoticed.

“The fact that the NHL is inviting all these creators to their events is so encouraging,” said Mike Grinnell, executive producer of "Spittin’ Chiclets" and a budding star in his own right. “It’s ahead of the wave. You’re not seeing the NFL do that. You’re not seeing the NBA do that. You’re not seeing the MLB do that. We wouldn’t be able to do [what we do] without the NHL.”

The final hurdle

The pieces are in place for the NHL. With prominent networks in ESPN and Turner Sports holding the TV rights, a salary cap set for a significant increase and a plethora of young, charismatic stars scattered across North America, the only thing that could hold the league back comes from within.

“I think the league has done as much as it could to market [Bedard]. I see his face everywhere. You have people who don’t care about hockey at all asking, ‘who is this Connor Bedard kid?’” Grinnell said. “So now I think some of the onus falls on Bedard to market himself.”

For Bedard, as well as other rising stars, perhaps the challenge lies in the fact that most are not used to self-promoting. These guys are largely fresh off of years of being showered with attention thanks to their dominance at the amateur levels. But more than that, the roadblock that has likely given pause to players when it comes to generating self-interest is hockey’s eminent team-first culture. And while there is a certain purity that comes with this philosophy, it has likely set the NHL back when it comes to players embracing their fame, especially in regards to the use of social media.

“I think early on, when people didn’t understand what social media was, it might have felt showboat-y or something like that.” Browning said. “But that’s not what it is at all. It is the direct connection to the fan. It’s what fans expect.”

To combat this, Browning revealed that the league has added a “social media workshop” to its player orientation that takes place each fall. The objective is to educate players as to best practices when it comes to managing their accounts, but she acknowledged that these sessions are becoming less paramount due to the fact that social media serves as what she called “the operating system of this generation.”

Lazarus, who played Division I college hockey before transitioning to a versatile media role that has included hosting several YouTube Live shows for the NHL, also expressed optimism as to potential changes to some of the outdated team-first principles that govern the locker room.

“This generation is a little bit more used to having cameras around all the time,” Lazarus said. “Players are starting to understand that they are out there more than when [Sidney] Crosby and [Alexander] Ovechkin were coming up because [games] were really only on cable.”

Grinnell added: “I think there was a good 10-15 years phase where nobody wanted to be bigger than the team, so it’s very encouraging that the younger generation coming into the NHL is making strides to be more outgoing and to get themselves out there.”

Awareness is only half the battle, though. As the landscape across professional sports continues to evolve toward a more player-first, rather than team-first, domain, NHL players must do the same. So for Bedard and this next generation of stars, the key will be to reframe the idea of self-promotion from an egotistical practice to an advantageous one.

Because if they can do that, there will be big things on the horizon for all parties. Even for Kyle from Chicago and Connor from North Vancouver.

Comments on this article