There were just 3,279 fans in attendance when Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats visited the Calgary Saddledome on Oct. 2, 2022.
Four months later, the ‘Bedard Bump’ has sent ticket demand soaring.
While the Hitmen and Pats warmed up on Wednesday night, the lower portion of the glass was nearly blocked out by a wall of construction paper signs and hopeful faces eager for a wave or, in one lucky kid’s case — an autograph.
All told, 17,223 fans filled the Saddledome’s lower bowl and packed into the highest corners of the East press level in hopes of getting a peek at #98 — the presumptive first overall selection at the 2023 NHL draft.
In fact, the 17-year-old hockey phenom says it’s the biggest crowd he’s ever played in front of.
“You feel it, you hear it and, you know, I think it brings some extra energy,” the player from North Vancouver said.
“You’re obviously on the road, they don’t like you as much — which is fun and you know when you’re home they’re cheering for you. So either way you’re kind of getting fired up for it.”
Bedard’s historic showing at the World Junior Hockey Championship, where he set a new tournament scoring record en route to a gold medal, has elevated him to must-see status for hardcore and casual fans.
“I’m old enough to have been here on the opening day for the Saddledome as a kid and watching Wayne Gretzky play,” hockey fan Mike Stahl said.
Some 40 years later, he brought his young son, Niko, along in hopes he’d have a similar story to tell one day.
“We bought tickets a month-and-a-half ago right at the end of the World Juniors and we were lucky to get a ticket then, so this is pretty incredible.”
Since returning from the world juniors in Halifax with some shiny new hardware in tow, Bedard has somehow found another level to his already exceptional game.
In his eight contests with the Pats since the break, the Regina captain has wracked up 17 goals (including three hat tricks) and eight assists.
With a sensational wrister from the bottom of the circle on Wednesday night, Bedard also extended his point streak to 35 games.
He’d follow it up with an assist with Regina’s tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period, and casually cap off his night with the game-winning goal in the shootout.
He’s only been held off the scoresheet once this season. But the consensus: Bedard isn’t just inflating his stats.
On Tuesday night, the Red Deer Rebels set a franchise regular season attendance record with 7,287 fans (Its season average is 3,829) filing into the Peavey Mart Centrium to watch the Rebels dish the Pats a 6-5 overtime loss.
Medicine Hat is poised to more than double its average attendance with a sellout duel (featuring Yukon prodigy Gavin McKenna) on Sunday.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes have run out of seats to sell and are now peddling standing-room-only tickets.
It’s a blessing for a gate-driven league that has felt the financial pinch of a bubble season and fans who’ve had to cut corners in their own entertainment budgets.
“It’s great for the whole entire league and it’s great for junior hockey,” Hitmen communications coordinator Cassandra Vilgrain said.
“Our hope is that it’s bringing a new audience to see what Hitmen hockey is like in our game presentation and our game experience. Hopefully, it gives it a boost and it continues on.
“It’s quite unprecedented. I mean, you had players like Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla, and we had players like (Ryan) Getzlaf who drew a lot. In the era of social media and exposure that Connor Bedard has had, I think that even brings a bigger audience and I don’t think it’s happened before.”
Maybe, like Getzlaf, Bedard will one day have his jersey retired in his junior rink.
For now though, he’ll continue the playoff chase with his Regina teammates, spending long bus rides across Western Canada engrossed in long card games and dreaming of the big leagues while fans enjoy the chance to see a star of tomorrow, today.
After all, the next time Bedard is in the Saddledome — it could very well be as a member of a lucky NHL team.