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Connor Bedard, as expected, taken first in the NHL draft by the Chicago Blackhawks

Connor Bedard is selected by the Chicago Blackhawks with the first overall pick during Round 1 of the 2023 Upper Deck NHL Draft at Bridgestone Arena on June 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks selected Connor Bedard with the first pick in the NHL draft on Wednesday night, kick-starting a hopeful new era with a highly skilled offensive forward who’s drawn comparisons to Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby.

Bedard became the second No. 1 pick in Blackhawks history, joining Patrick Kane, who went first overall in 2007 and helped form the core of a team that won three Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015.

Though Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson declined to reveal who he would take first since winning the draft lottery in May, Bedard was considered Chicago’s target all along among a prospect class filled with talented forwards.

“It’s incredible. I couldn’t be happier,” Bedard said.

His debut could very well be against Crosby on the NHL’s opening night on Oct. 10, when Chicago is scheduled to play at Pittsburgh.

“I got to make it first, but that would be unreal. He’s a big idol of mine,” Bedard said.

The intrigue of the draft began with the Anaheim Ducks selecting Sweden forward Leo Carlsson, who was regarded as the top European skater. With the third pick, the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Michigan forward Adam Fantilli, who became the third freshman to win college hockey’s top award, the Hobey Baker Trophy.

The first American player off the board went fourth, when the San Jose Sharks selected USA Hockey Development Program forward Will Smith, who is from Boston and has committed to playing at Boston College next season.

The Montreal Canadiens round out the top five selections. One of the questions is when a team picks Matvei Michkov, who is under contract to play in his native Russia through the 2025-26 season.

A large contingent of Blackhawks fans were in attendance, with an exceptionally loud cheer going up during the pre-draft roll call of teams when it came Chicago’s turn. They cheered even louder, followed by chants of “Let’s go Hawks!” when Bedard took the stage and pulled on a No. 98 jersey, which he’s worn for much of his career.

“We’ll see. We’ll let him figure that out,” Davidson said, when asked about his expectations for Bedard. “He’s a pretty special player, a very special person. We’ll let him determine how special that first season is.”

Weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Bedard has spent much of the past two years projected as this year’s top draft prospect. From North Vancouver, British Columbia, Bedard has done nothing to give pause to the high projections after posting 100-point seasons in back-to-back years with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.

His 71 goals in 57 games last year were the most by a WHL player in 24 years, and his 143 points were the most since 1995-96. At just under 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Bedard is regarded a generational prospect, much like McDavid, who was selected first in 2015 and this week was named the league’s MVP for the third time.

The Blackhawks have already begun refitting their roster to help Bedard’s development by acquiring veterans Taylor Hall (the first pick in the 2010 draft) and Nick Foligno in a trade with Boston this week.

Davidson spent much of the past year tearing his roster down, dating to last year’s draft when the Blackhawks stockpiled picks by trading Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach on consecutive days. The overhaul continued when Chicago traded Kane to the New York Rangers in February and closed the year by parting ways with longtime captain Jonathan Toews.