Dansby Swanson glanced at the video board Monday night at Wrigley Field as Chicago Cubs fans began cheering a PA announcement.
The Blackhawks had won the draft lottery to secure the top pick in the NHL draft, meaning wunderkind Connor Bedard, a so-called “generational talent,” likely would be coming to Chicago.
Being the top pick of any draft puts you in an exclusive club. Swanson earned that honor in 2015 when the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him No. 1 in baseball’s amateur draft, so the Cubs shortstop knows that living up to the hype isn’t easy.
“No. 1 picks always are associated with a certain type of performance level that is expected, right?” Swanson said Tuesday at Wrigley. “I feel like a lot of that pressure comes from the outside in. It’s more of a challenge of just learning to manage the outside voices. Whoever this is that’s going to be drafted first … ”
Uh, Bedard. Or so we assume.
“Is that who it is?” he asked.
Forgive Swanson for not knowing the name of the presumptive top pick of the Blackhawks. He grew up in Georgia and had some experience following the Nashville Predators when he went to college at Vanderbilt.
“How old is he?” Swanson asked. “Twenty? Twenty-one? Eighteen?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Obviously the Hawks have an outstanding tradition. When I was in college the Preds and the Blackhawks had a pretty big rivalry, and they’d always match up in the playoffs at some point. Obviously there are going to be some expectations.”
That’s an understatement.
Bedard already has been touted as the face of the franchise, and the Hawks said Tuesday that since the news they already sold $5.2-million worth of season and half-season ticket plans for 2023-24 after finishing with the third worst record in the league.
EA Sports NHL tweeted that a video game simulation of Bedard’s career resulted in 739 goals, 1,145 assists, four MVP trophies and three Stanley Cups, among other awards.
Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson would not reveal his hand regarding the top pick. We’ll probably have to wait until June 28 when the first round of draft takes place in Nashville, Tenn. But rest assured he who shall not be named is going to be the Hawks’ pick, and the marketing department already has begun spitballing its plans for the promotion of the kid.
Swanson was thrilled to be the first pick nearly eight years ago and was one of the last picks to sign. Diamondbacks chief baseball officer Tony La Russa had traveled to Swanson’s hometown of Marietta, Ga., to seal the contract.
“Being No. 1 is the best position you can be in,” Swanson said upon signing for a $6.5 million bonus. “It’s kind of hard to improve on that.”
But Swanson’s path zigzagged when La Russa and Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart decided that winter to make him the centerpiece of a shocking deal that sent him to the Atlanta Braves for Shelby Miller. It was widely criticized at the time and eventually would go down as one of the worst trades in Diamondbacks history.
La Russa later defended the deal in an interview with the Arizona Republic.
“How many front offices, if you polled the other 29, how many would have questioned it or said it was a bad deal?” La Russa said. “At the same time that we were hearing the criticisms, I was also hearing from people that I knew personally saying, ‘Hey, man, we know where you were coming from. We were interested in Shelby as well.’
“I would always like to know who criticizes it. There are some people that I have a ton of respect for and there are others I don’t have the same level of respect. If it’s somebody I have big levels of respect, then I would be bothered. If it’s not, then I’m not.”
Stewart was gone after two seasons, and La Russa left a year later. Swanson emerged as the Braves everyday shortstop by 2017 and helped lead them to a World Series title in 2021. Last fall he signed a seven-year, $177 million deal with the Cubs.
Bedard won’t have to follow the same path and should expect to be a Blackhawk for years. He’ll no doubt draw comparisons to Patrick Kane, the team’s last No. 1 pick in 2007, who lived up to the hype and won three Cups with the Hawks before being dealt to the New York Rangers at this year’s trade deadline.
If Bedard can follow in Kane’s footsteps, without the missteps, he could become one of the most popular athletes in Chicago history. That’s asking a lot from someone who turns 18 on July 17.
But that’s just the way it is. Bedard has exceeded the hype that put him in position to be the No. 1 pick and seems prepared to deal with whatever comes his way.
“The thing I will say about hockey, from the most of the hockey guys I’ve been around, is they’re all pretty down-to-earth guys in general,” Swanson said. “There’s a little different type of mentality and environment, so that usually helps, being surrounded by that kind of culture.”
Swanson’s advice for he who shall not be named is to follow your instincts and shut out the noise.
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“Obviously there are going to be some expectations, but No. 1 is to control what you can control,” Swanson said. “That’s the easy one. I’ve found a lot of it in my (being grounded) and my faith. That’s where I turn to instead of everyone labeling me ‘this.’ That’s not who I am. That’s just part of my journey.
“So that’s a pretty substantial piece of advice I’d give to anybody in that position.”
Swanson knows that every top pick of any sport has different obstacles, and some don’t make it. He has had his share as well but eight years later can already say that he has accomplished some of the goals he set out for himself.
“It’s your own journey, your own path,” he said. “Everyone has a different way of going about it. Some have it smooth, some have it tough. Some have it smooth, then tough and then smooth.”
“Mine has been a steady incline,” he said. “Which is how I like it.”
The Hawks gladly would settle for that when you know who arrives.