OTTAWA — Brady Keeper talks softly but his smile can light up a dressing room.
On Thursday, the 22-year-old from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Cross Lake, Man., beamed the once-in-a-lifetime smile of a young man about to play his first NHL game. Cross Lake is about 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
“I’ve got no words to explain it,” said Keeper, staring into the bright lights of a media scrum in the visitors’ dressing room at the Canadian Tire Centre. “It’s really exciting for me and my family.”
Keeper only found out he was starting for the Florida Panthers against the Ottawa Senators as he took the ice for the morning skate. He expects at least 20 family members and friends, including his brothers and both sets of grandparents.
Nine days ago, the six-foot-two, 194-pound defenceman from the University of Maine signed a two-year entry-level contract with Florida.
His story is already the stuff of legend. Is it true, I asked him, that he had just 63 cents left in his bank account the day he left campus? Yes, he smiled. A mentor at Maine paid his luggage fee so he could board the flight to Dallas to join the Panthers on the road.
That luggage contained the one suit Keeper owns. With his new contract, paying him $950,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 in the minors, plus a $92,500 signing bonus, Keeper can afford another suit. And shoes to match.
“It just shows that if you put in the hard work and stay away from the bad stuff, that you can do anything you want in life,” Keeper says. “It shows that even coming from a town of 8,000 like Cross Lake you can do whatever you want to do in life.”
What a week it has been for the Cree community. Just on Sunday, they huddled around TV sets in Cross Lake and beyond to watch the first Rogers Hometown Hockey game to be broadcast in the Cree language. Clarence Iron did the play-by-play and ex-NHLer John Chabot, whose family grew up in the Algonquin language, did the colour analysis in English, which was translated to Cree. Chabot is well known in native circles for his Hit The Ice TV series, which showcases and develops Indigenous hockey talent on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
Keeper was able to catch some of the Cree NHL broadcast, and gave it a thumbs-up rating.
“It was really different,” Keeper said of hearing a game in Cree. “The guy broadcasting (Iron) was going pretty hard.
“I think it meant a lot to all the (native) communities and reservations across Canada. That was pretty cool to see that going on.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the name Cross Lake conjured up a very different headline than a native son reaching the NHL. In 2016 the remote community in Manitoba made national news when five young people on the reservation committed suicide within a short period of time. Dozens more suicide attempts followed.
Keeper says the self-harm and suicide attempts have “kind of settled down” in the past three years and he believes he can help illustrate the possibilities for young Indigenous people in Cross Lake and elsewhere.
“I hope me being here will show people that if you stick to what you believe in, and what you want to do in life, you can do whatever you want,” Keeper says.
Retired NHL forward Jordan Tootoo understands the impact an Indigenous player can have on native youth. Tootoo, from Rankin Inlet, has never met Keeper but his phone call of congratulations the other day meant the world to Keeper.
“He’s another guy I looked up to growing up,” Keeper says.
Representing an entire community can be a burden, but Keeper vowed he would go out and have fun in his NHL debut, wearing No. 25 for the Panthers.
He learned about responsibility at a young age, having become a father before he went to Maine at age 20. He and girlfriend Shaylyn have also adopted another boy. Family is vital to Keeper, as he’s looked up to his Maine coaches as extended family, especially assistant coach Alfie Michaud, who is also a native Canadian from a Manitoba reservation – in Selkirk.
After a 22-point freshman season, Keeper was drawing NHL interest to leave school after one year, but wanted to develop and grow. Panthers amateur scout Bill Ryan and associate coach Jack Capuano showed particular interest in Keeper, and he made Florida his choice this month when Maine’s season ended.
Keeper hopes the nine days he has spent practising with the NHL club will pay off. He has also spent time in the video room learning the Panthers’ systems.
“Obviously he’s going to have some nerves,” said Panthers head coach Bob Boughner. “You can see he’s got some skill to his game, he’s good with the puck and once his nerves settle in he’s going to be absolutely fine.”
Boughner understands that Keeper is “the pride of his community.”
The kid knows it, too, from Facebook messages, texts and even a video sent to him of students dancing outside Mikisew School in Cross Lake at the news of Keeper signing an NHL contract.
It’s easy to forget, now, how many times Keeper nearly quit this path due to loneliness, hardship, and being repeatedly cut from competitive teams.
“The journey, I guess, has been a tough one, coming right from Cross Lake,” Keeper says, laughing. “It’s a tough upbringing to make it here to the NHL but I’m excited to be here.”