NHL rookie idols: Who inspired Bedard, Cooley, Wallstedt, other future stars?


Connor Bedard was born on July 17, 2005, just under two weeks before Sidney Crosby was drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As you take a deep breath and consider the endless march of time, please note that Bedard and his generation of talented young prospects basically all grew up admiring players who are still thriving in the NHL today. Some are eager to compete against them. Some admit to feeling “weirdness” about it. At least one currently shares a locker room with his favorite player from his childhood fandom — but hasn’t revealed that fact to him yet.

We asked 18 young stars at the 2023 NHLPA Rookie Showcase which NHL players inspired them as young players, from borrowing aspects of their games to inspiring them to first pick up a stick.

First up is No. 1 overall pick Bedard and his hockey idol … against whom he’s expected to battle in his first NHL game this season.

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Talk to Connor Bedard about anything he’s looking forward to accomplishing in the NHL and he’ll immediately bring it back to the fact that he still has to earn his spot on the Blackhawks’ roster — no matter how many season tickets they’ve already sold in anticipation of his arrival.

“I say all the time that I’m trying to focus on having a good camp and everything,” he said, “but if that’s what happens, that’d be awesome.”

Bedard was talking about getting the chance to line up against his idol Sidney Crosby, which could happen on NHL opening night on Oct. 10, as the Blackhawks and the Penguins are scheduled to play on ESPN.

“Just playing in the league is a dream. It’s the dream of everyone that’s played as a kid,” he said. “Crosby being my favorite player, that would be pretty special.”

Bedard said he has tried to take what he could from a lot of players he admired growing up. In the case of Crosby, “It’s just his hockey IQ and how he controls the puck. What he does is pretty remarkable.”

The Coyotes rookie is a Pittsburgh native who got his start in hockey with Sidney Crosby’s youth camps. Which is one reason he’s looking forward to his first game against the Penguins.

“I have a ton of family getting tickets for that game. I think they got a box seat actually,” Cooley said. “Crosby’s such a role model, on and off the ice. Being able to play against him is going to be pretty special.”

But Cooley wasn’t a typical Pittsburgh kid. Truth be told, his friends gave him a lot of grief. Because even though he attended his camp and respects Crosby, Logan Cooley wasn’t a Pittsburgh Penguins fan. He grew up rooting for the Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin was his guy.

“That’s the real one where I may be a little starstruck,” Cooley said, with a laugh. “[Playing against him] would be so much fun, especially because he was my favorite player.”

One of the Flames’ top young offensive wingers grew up admiring a defenseman: former New York Islanders blueliner Nick Leddy.

“When I was growing up, like when I was really little, I played defense. So my favorite player growing up was Nick Leddy,” Coronato said. “He was just so fast. I’d watch him skate the puck up and he would fly. So he was definitely a guy I looked up to.”

Leddy is entering his 14th NHL season and third with the St. Louis Blues.

“I wouldn’t say I was trying to model my game after him, I just liked watching him,” Coronato said.

He would tell his friends that his favorite player was Leddy. They were from the Island. They understood. But that wasn’t the case when he was talking hockey with out-of-towners.

“For them I would maybe change my answer a little and say John Tavares,” he said with a laugh.

Like so many Quebecois forwards born in the past 20 years, Bourgault is a Patrice Bergeron fan.

“A great leader and a great guy,” Bourgault said of the former Boston Bruins captain. “I was watching him a lot when I was growing up. I think he had a hell of a career.”

He said Bergeron’s balance of offense and defense encouraged him to hone his defensive game a bit more. “I’m a very offensive guy. He’s very good in his own zone. So I’ve tried to take a bit of his game on the defensive side.”

If Bourgault had 10 chances to beat Bergeron in the faceoff circle, how many could he win?

“Maybe one,” he said, laughing.

The player Conor Geekie most admired growing up? “Probably my brother.”

Morgan Geekie was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017 (67th overall). He played for the Hurricanes and Seattle Kraken before signing with the Bruins in the offseason.

Conor Geekie is six years younger and a couple of draft rounds better than Morgan, having been taken 11th overall by the Coyotes in 2022. But he credits his brother for helping to make him the player he’s become.

“Being around him my entire life is something super special to me,” he said. “I think just watching Morgan kind of pave the way for me was something really cool.”

Conor said the free skates between him and his brother helped broaden his mind as a player.

“It was a lot of fun with how creative he was. I think I took my creativity to another level just trying to be a little better than him,” he said.

It’s good to find that kind of competition in your own house. “I know,” the younger Geekie said. “It’s crazy.”

Wolf is from Gilroy, California, also known as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” While his hometown was pungent, his favorite hockey team didn’t stink: Wolf, 22, grew up watching the San Jose Sharks during their run of 14 playoff appearances in 15 seasons.

Evgeni Nabokov, I watched him a ton growing up. Nabokov is who got me into goaltending,” Wolf said.

But “Nabby” wasn’t the only influence in Wolf’s game.

“I moved to Los Angeles when I was 10, and they won two Cups in three years, so I was watching Jonathan Quick a lot, too,” he said.

He watched Quick during his formative years as a goaltender. “I probably took a little bit more from him than Nabokov, I feel like from a technical aspect,” he said.

The words “technical” and “Jonathan Quick” don’t typically go together.

Wolf laughed.

“Yeah, he’s a little outside the box, but that’s just how he plays, right?” he said. “I’ve taken a little bit of that too, where I can stay within my lines, but also you’ll venture outside the box and find something that you wouldn’t have normally seen.”

Favorite players can change with age. Growing up, Bolduc was a big Sidney Crosby fan.

“But I would say that getting older and learning more about the game, it was a guy like Nathan MacKinnon,” he said.

Why did he move from Crosby to MacKinnon? “I think when Nate came into the league, Sid had already been there for a long time. And he’s a veteran now in the league,” he said. “The game is changing and I love the way that Nate’s playing. I try to see myself into Nate’s game.”

Is Bolduc aware there are players who didn’t grow up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, whom he could idolize?

“They all come from there!” he said, laughing. “And I wish to play against them one day.”

Wallstedt is a young Swedish goalie. His answer will not come as a surprise.

Henrik Lundqvist, for sure,” he said. “Of course. Who wouldn’t admire him?”

Wallstedt met the New York Rangers legend twice when he was young. “It was very cool,” he said. “He’s a very kind, very honest, very friendly human being.”

Wallstedt said he didn’t take much from Lundqvist’s technical game for his own goaltending bag of tricks.

“More like his competitiveness. The way he can bounce back. The way he’s a game winner and all of these things,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve formed my technical style around him, but, you can pick up so many other things than just how he’s working out there.”

Evans admits his favorite player growing up was “kind of weird.”

He’s a defenseman. Joe Sakic was a Hall of Fame center for the Colorado Avalanche.

“I don’t know. I think I got a card of him when I was younger and I always stuck with him,” he said. “My favorite team was Colorado. My favorite player was Joe Sakic.”

Was he ever tempted to switch from defenseman to forward because of Sakic?

“No,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, my dad was a forward and I ended up playing ‘D.'”

When Korchinski was drafted by Chicago, he put on the same sweater his favorite player, Patrick Kane, wore during a legendary career with the Blackhawks.

“My dad was a big Blackhawks fan so I kind of hopped on his bandwagon when they were winning all those Cups,” he said. “My dad really liked Jonathan Toews but I liked Patrick Kane. Just a bit more flashy, which I liked as a kid.”

Korchinski, who briefly interacted with Kane at Chicago’s training camp last season, said that the winger’s flashy play probably influenced him in becoming an offensive defenseman.

“I think for me, scoring and getting points and just having the puck is more fun when you’re a kid,” he said. “I always wanted the puck on my stick and try to create things.”

The Predators forward had two major influences who couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed.

“Too true, too true,” he said. “I liked Evgeni Malkin when I was younger. Then when I was drafted to London, I was watching a lot of Mitch Marner.”

So Marner is Evangelista’s skilled side and Malkin is his aggressive side?

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Marner has the magic, the good hands.”

His love of Malkin came from watching highlights of the Penguins center on YouTube.

“It was just all of these clips of him getting angry and then he would go out and just do something wild,” Evangelista said. “That’s what I grew up watching that made me a big fan of his.”

When Cuylle was young, he was a Sharks fan who admired Joe Thornton. Which is understandable for a “Jumbo” prospect who clocks in at 6-foot-4.

“Then as I got older and started watching the game like a bit more in depth, started to like Jamie Benn,” he said.

Cuylle said he appreciated the Dallas captain’s overall game, from his shooting to his hands to his physicality and his leadership. But before you ask: Yes, Cuylle was watching the 2023 Western Conference finals when Benn earned himself a two-game suspension for an ill-advised attack on Vegas Golden Knights forward Mark Stone.

“I was watching because I played with [Dallas forward] Wyatt Johnston in Windsor for four years. So I was obviously probably rooting for Dallas,” he said. “It was tough for them [to lose], but they’ve got a good team. They’ll probably be back.”

If you’re going to borrow, then borrow from the best.

“When I was really young, my brother and I both really liked Alex Ovechkin. But when Connor McDavid came into the league, I started watching a lot. So those two were probably my favorites,” Beck said. “I mean, it’s hard to take things from guys that are that great. Like, obviously, I’m not going to have McDavid’s speed or anything like that. But I try to use my speed to my advantage and take little techniques from his skating and apply them to mine.”

What about Ovechkin?

“You can watch him take a one-timer and he’s mastered it pretty well,” he said. “So I can take a little adjustment, a little tweak and apply that to my form.”

While Ovechkin and McDavid have motivated Beck, he said there’s a difference between inspiration and emulation.

“Like, it’s not going to be identical. It’s not going to be the exact same. But I can try and take whatever I can from them,” he said.

There are many young players who take their inspiration from McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. But as a young Oilers fan, Savoie found himself rooting for someone else: forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

“I actually skated with Nugent-Hopkins this summer. To see him firsthand was really good for me,” he said. “Kind of a smaller guy from the West who really improved his game.”

That Nugent-Hopkins isn’t frequently mentioned as a hockey idol fits his aesthetic: Entering his 13th season, he remains an underrated talent, even after breaking 100 points for the first time in his career this past season.

“He was a 104-point guy for a reason. When you see him in summer skates, you can tell that. He’s finishing everything. He’s making good passes. He knows where everyone is on the ice,” Savoie said. “Just to see that firsthand and kind of take things from his game was huge.”

Knies is that other Maple Leafs forward who grew up rooting for the Coyotes. And as such, his favorite player growing up was a Coyote. While captain Shane Doan was the franchise’s most beloved player, he wasn’t Knies’ guy.

He looked up to Mikkel Boedker, the Danish-born winger who played eight seasons with the Coyotes.

“That’s why I wore No. 89 growing up,” Knies said. “Just really fast, really speedy. He was quick and scored goals. I think he was the most electric player on the team at that time.”

No disrespect intended to Mikkel Boedker … but is it possible Matthew Knies is his No. 1 fan?

“Maybe? I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone’s asked him that. Hopefully I am.”

When Faber was at the U.S. National Team Development Program, there was one defenseman who inspired his own play: current Bruins blueliner Charlie McAvoy.

“I really try to model my game, as best I can, after him,” Faber said. “I think he’s such a phenomenal player. I feel like we have kind of similar builds, similar skill sets. I really want to play like him someday obviously.”

Faber also made sure to give some love to the defensemen on the Wild he admires: Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin.

“I get to watch them play every day and learn from them off the ice, how they carry themselves with nutrition and sleep and all those things,” he said. “So I’ve learned a lot from those two. But specifically, at the USNTDP, it was all Charlie McAvoy.”

Wiesblatt hasn’t had the chance to face Sidney Crosby yet, as he has played the past two seasons with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. But if the opportunity does arrive, he expects it’ll be … weird.

“The closer you get to reaching your dreams and things like that, in a way it’s super weird, you know? Because I remember just being a little kid and having a Crosby jersey on when I was 12 years old,” he said. “So [playing against him] is a weird thing, but it’s also very exciting and something I really want to do.”

Wiesblatt, a Calgary native, said he admires the completeness of Crosby’s game.

“Everyone talks about how skilled he is, but he has a real competitiveness to his game,” Wiesblatt said. “You see him protect pucks and backcheck and work 200 feet. He’s just a selfless player.”

Not many young players can say they share a locker room with their childhood idol. But Ridly Greig can because he grew up a massive Claude Giroux fan.

“The way he was so competitive just caught my eye. It’s pretty cool to have a teammate like that,” Greig said.

He said his interactions with the NHL veteran have been small so far, but Giroux did offer some sage advice during Greig’s first game last season.

“He just said to keep it simple and to work as hard as you can. But he’s been a nice guy to kind of lean on for things,” Greig said.

So when an NHL player shares a dressing room with his hockey idol, is it cool to share that information? Or is that a little too fanboy for a pro?

Greig admits he hasn’t told Giroux yet.

“But I’m pretty sure he knows. I think it’s out there. Someone told him,” he said.

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