By Derek Holtom
OCN Blizzard grad Brady Keeper made his NHL debut this past week when his Florida Panthers took on the Ottawa Senators.
Keeper, who was watched by many friends and family, played more than 14 minutes and was named a game star. While some people are watching Keeper’s entry into the NHL with amazement, one man in the MJHL knew the young defenceman would do just fine.
“I am not surprised (he signed an NHL contract),” says his former coach in OCN and current Dauphin Kings head coach and GM Doug Hedley. “His two years at Maine, doing the off-ice training, getting faster and stronger, and meeting that challenge. I think it’s outstanding.”
“He is a great person and a great kid,” he added. “He was the captain of our team, and it’s well deserved.”
And nowhere is Keeper’s success being celebrated more than up north, in his hometown of Cross Lake and in The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation where he starred for the Blizzard.
“Cross Lake is tremendously proud of Brady and Anthony (his brother who also played with the Blizzard),” noted Hedley. “They were heroes in Cross Lake every time they would go back to help with summer hockey schools and work with the young people.”
“It didn’t matter what community we went to in the north – Brady and Anthony were the guys everyone wanted to talk to.”
An outstanding defenceman if there ever was one, Keeper was building one of the best resumes the Manitoba Junior Hockey League had seen in some time. League MVP. Top defenceman. First-team all-star.
Keeper’s stellar play for OCN paved his way to the NCAA’s University of Maine. But two years after making the jump to the college level, it became all too evident that he was destined to play in the professional ranks.
Not that his two-year journey with Maine was smooth sailing. Keeper admits to being home sick, and wanting to return to the familiar surroundings of Cross Lake soon after arriving in Maine. But his coaches, his advisors, and his agents would have none of it.
Neither would Jordin Tootoo, the former OCN Blizzard and Brandon Wheat Kings start, who helped inspire a generation of Aboriginal hockey players in Canada – Keeper included.
“I talked to him many times as he was contemplating hanging up his skates,” Tootoo told Frank Seravalli of TSN. “There were lots of issues at home, lots of things going on back on the reserve. I knew exactly what he was going through.”
“The biggest hurdle is leaving home. I remember having a conversation with him, telling him to live in the moment. Because anyone watching him knew he had what it takes to make it.”
I spoke to Keeper last year about making the transition to the NCAA ranks, and about his time in the MJHL. For a player who has soared as high as he has, as quickly as he has, Keeper is definitely someone who remembers his roots.
“I had three years there, and I got to be a leader, and that really helped me get ready to play in the NCAA,” he said of his time with the OCN Blizzard.
And coach Hedley is one of many who believe Keeper will continue to improve.