Two of the top prospects in hockey are childhood best friends, but will be enemies on Tuesday night in Kelowna.
Buzz is spreading around Kelowna as Andrew Cristall and the Rockets are to host the Regina Pats and the number one prospect in hockey, Connor Bedard at Prospera Place.
The two 17-year-olds have been playing hockey either on the same team or against each other since they were five-years old, and are excited to play against each other for the first time in their WHL careers.
“We both want to get the win, we both want to out-do each other,” said Cristall. “We’re excited for the game tomorrow for sure.”
“I think we’ve known each other for over 10 years now,” said Bedard. “We’re super competitive together, whatever it is we’re doing. I mean, he doesn’t beat me much but we’re together all the time, we’re super close. It’s exciting, we’ll probably have dinner or something after the game, I’ve been watching what he’s been doing this year and obviously we’re super close and getting the chance to play against him and compete against him, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The two keep in touch on a regular basis, usually texting each other after one another’s games.
Both have also taken the league by storm. Going into Tuesday night’s contest, Bedard leads the league in scoring by a country mile, and Cristall is tied for second in the category.
In 20 games so far this season, Cristall, the Burnaby native, has 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists), and is currently on an 11-game point streak. Bedard from North Vancouver has been putting up video game numbers throughout his career, including this season. He leads the league with 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) and has at least one point in every game so far this season (24 games).
The expected first-round draft picks in the 2023 NHL Draft have high-praise for each other.
“I think his smarts, he’s got probably the best IQ I’ve ever seen, always in the right spot, always making the right play,” said Bedard. “He’s having an unreal year but I’m not surprised at all.”
“His shot is incredible, nothing like I’ve ever seen before,” said Cristall.
Because of the pandemic restrictions during last season, Bedard and the Pats haven’t been able to travel to B.C. for games. The Pats current roadtrip is Bedard’s first time playing in the WHL throughout his hometown province and he’s been the hottest ticket in every town as every game has been sold out.
“It’s a lot of fun, you can feel the energy in the building,” said Bedard, who’s had his parents, and other family and friends attend the games across the province. “Being in front of the sold out [WHL] crowds is pretty crazy.”
The Pats are currently in the middle of a seven-game roadtrip that includes stops in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Prince George.
And while Bedard is the main attraction as the number one prospect in hockey, he knows how good the players are all around the league.
“There’s a lot of guys in this league people are coming to watch, I’m just playing and just one of the guys in the room,” said Bedard.
Tuesday’s game at Prospera Place is the first sold out crowd the Rockets have had since before the pandemic as the 6,000-seat stadium plans to have around 6,300-6,400 people with standing room also at capacity. It sold out a few weeks ago, according to Kelowna Rockets General Manager Bruce Hamilton.
“It’s exciting,” said Hamilton. “I think it’ll be a pretty cool environment these guys haven’t seen. These games are sold out throughout British Columbia.”
When asked if these players are ready to see their first sellout, he said that sold-out crowds used to be the norm and it’s the expectation that head coach Kris Mallette will have his team prepared for it.
The women’s hockey Rivalry Series game at Prospera Place two weeks ago was also sold out.
While both players are expected to be drafted early in the first round of the NHL Draft in June, both are also fans of the Vancouver Canucks after growing up in the Metro-Vancouver area. With the Canucks struggling early to start the season, they could have a chance to draft one of them.
“I’m still cheering for them, just being a fan and what not,” said Bedard. “I haven’t thought about the draft much so I’m just cheering for them like I always have.”
Both Bedard and Cristall have a very good chance to leave their respective teams for a while in the coming weeks to have their shot to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors, which are taking place in Halifax and Moncton from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3. Bedard was on last year’s World Junior team.
Tuesday’s match up is the first and only time this season the Rockets and Pats meet. Puck drop at Prospera Place is at 7:05 p.m.