As he sat on a couch and watched a National Hockey League game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers at home with his friends in Peterborough, Ont. during the late 1990s, Nate Bedford was informed by his father that he was wanted on the telephone.
“I was telling him that I was watching the game and then he told me it was Roger,” Bedford recalled.
The man who was on the other end of the line was long-time family friend and coaching legend Roger Neilson, who was the head coach at the time for the Philadelphia Flyers.
“In between periods he called me to get my thoughts on goaltending and how the trap was working along with other hockey specific questions,” Bedford said. “He’s calling me right in the middle of an NHL game and my friends are looking at me with their mouths wide open.
“With him being best friends with my dad and me cutting his grass since I was 12 years old, I was fortunate enough to get to know him well. He saw that I really liked the game of hockey and he taught me quite a lot about it first hand.”
The things he got to see and learn from Neilson, along with his dad who was a head coach and general manager in the Ontario Junior A ranks, would eventually lead Bedford, 36, into the world of coaching and his current job as the general manager and head coach of the Battlefords North Stars.
Prior to that, though, he was a goaltender for the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Lindsay Muskies from 1997 to 2001 and also suited up in a handful of games as a backup for the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes.
“At the time I had desires to play in major junior hockey, so when I see guys like (former North Star and current Regina Pats forward) Braydon (Buziak) go out and chase their dreams, I totally get it,” Bedford said. “I didn’t get the opportunity to play much for the Petes but it was a great experience
“We had a really good team with the Muskies during that time. I wasn’t a great player so I knew that I would have to start figuring out what I was going to do after my career was over.”
Following one year of playing in Europe, Bedford came back home to help Neilson, who was an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators at the time and had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I immediately hung up my skates and was going to support him with whatever he needed,” Bedford said.
In addition to helping Neilson with his medical needs, Bedford also had an opportunity to work with the Senators as a video coach.
Being alongside Neilson for his final two seasons in the National Hockey League before his passing in 2003 gave Bedford multiple lessons on coaching and life that he draws upon to this day.
“Roger was a quiet guy that didn’t need to be the centre of attention,” Bedford said. “He didn’t over coach or over talk guys. He was the guy they say supposedly invented video analysis, but he would be the first to tell you that if you take any more than five minutes in relaying your message to the players, you’re just wasting time.
“He was also as honest as they come. When he was on his last legs and didn’t have much left, he always carried a book with him that had all of his friends in it and he always did his best to try and communicate with them in his last days. He didn’t have a family, but he was a best friend to a lot of people. To see how much he cared for them is something that was very important for me to see.”
After his tenure with the Senators came to an end, Bedford ventured out into the real world.
“I went to school and I was also running hockey programs and being an on-ice instructor,” Bedford said.
“From that I got involved with being a recreations co-ordinator. I would go to facilities and help them open up along with getting different projects off of the ground.”
The job eventually led him to Fort McMurray, Alta., where he became an assistant coach for the Keyano College Huskies program in 2012.
Following two seasons in that role, he became the head coach for the team in 2014 and led the Huskies to a third place finish in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference last year.
“When I started with the program there was nothing there,” Bedford recalled. “In that first year you are trying to recruit as many guys as you can as quickly as possible.
“To see it build up from it’s infancy to being one of the top teams in the league was very rewarding. Then to have the program cancelled out of the blue was very frustrating.”
It was a rough spring for Bedford, his wife Katy and their infant son Rockwell.
Shortly after Keyano College elected to scrap the hockey program in April, their home in Fort McMurray burned to the ground in the wildfire that overtook the city.
After returning back home to Peterborough and wondering what was next, things turned around last month when the North Stars hired Bedford.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed here so far is just how much support you get,” Bedford said “It’s a lot different than what I’m used to.
“There’s a billet co-ordinator, a full-time assistant coach and a full-time trainer, which certainly isn’t there for most coaches at the college level. The board of directors and the community are so supportive here and it’s very noticeable after being on an island, at times, at Keyano.”
When it comes to his future goals, Bedford and his family are currently working on a two-year plan.
“That’s the approach we took after everything happened in Fort McMurray,” Bedford said.
“I would like to coach as long as possible and if that’s still in the cards that would be great. However, I’m more than happy to get back involved in the recreation side of things if that doesn’t work out.”