By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
People in the know have long realized Brady Keeper is a special hockey player, a reputation he honed as a member of the OCN Blizzard for three seasons. Now the former MJHL “Most Outstanding Player” has taken his game to an entirely different level as a member of the University of Maine Black Bears, leaving many to wonder just how high will this northern star will climb.
The first-year defenceman sits eighth in team scoring with the Black Bears, putting up six goals and seven assists in just 22 games. Some players need a bit of time transitioning from junior A hockey to the college game, but Keeper has done it as seamlessly as any player in recent memory.
“I think I have adjusted pretty good,” said Keeper. “It took some time to adjust to the ice and playing against older players, but I feel I fit right in with this team. I’m really enjoying it.”
Keeper is himself impressed with the U of Maine program, including the structure and supports in place to assist the player athletes.
“Everything is professional,” he said. “From how they get ready before games, to weights and conditioning, to nutrition and even cool downs after games. It’s all a big part of our success.”
And Keeper feels his time in OCN really helped prepare him for the making the jump to the NCAA level.
“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.
With this being his rookie season, Keeper is careful not to look too far ahead, even if he did skate at a Los Angeles Kings’ rookie camp this past summer. But it’s not hard to imagine pro teams would become even more tempted to try and get Keeper signed given his solid rookie campaign.
“Right now my team and my school are my priorities,” said Keeper, though he admits a professional career is something he would like to pursue down the road.
And so Keeper and his U of Maine Black Bears will continue to battle the likes of Boston College, Providence and Northeastern, fueled by a drive to succeed and blessed with support of his family and friends from all across northern Manitoba. Keeper is definitely a northern star, and it remains to be seen just how high he’ll soar.
Meanwhile, Keeper’s hockey progression is being watched by all his fans and MJHL followers.
“Brady represents the high level of players we have in our league,” MJHL Commissioner Kim Davis said. “He’s being scouted and evaluated by NHL teams. This is good for him and our league as we continue to develop our players.”
Cross Lake connection
Keeper is one of several players to recently come out Cross Lake, a northern Manitoba community where the lakes are seemingly as endless as the winters, and hockey is the winter sport of choice for most.
Along with Brady Keeper there is his brother Anthony, who now leads an OCN Blizzard squad poised for another long playoff run. Another recent hockey product from the First Nations community north of Norway House is Justin Nachbaur, now playing with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders after playing with the Keeper brothers last year in OCN.
With all that talent, is it any wonder the Blizzard made it all the way to the league final last year?
All three are outstanding players, but it’s Brady Keeper who is really turning heads this year.
“I think Brady has handled the adjustment great,” said Alfie Michaud, an assistant coach with the U of Maine. “Anyone who’s followed the MJHL knows he is a talented individual with a great level of skill and compete.
“For him, the biggest adjustment – if you ask him – would be the school element,” he added. “The hockey part for him comes pretty natural. But he did have to adjust to the pace, and dealing with the bigger bodies.”
That’s for sure. There are not any 16-year-old, 150 pounders at the NCAA level. Michaud notes the Bears themselves have players as tall as 6’5 and 6’6 – and that’s before the skates are laced up.
His play has earned him a spot on the top four defense for the U of Maine, along with earning power-play time. He’s also sports the second best plus-minus rating on the team at plus 10.
“We could not be happier about the way he has come along here,” said Michaud, himself a Manitoba product from Selkirk who played his junior hockey with the Lebret Eagles of the SJHL before moving on to play at the U of Maine in the late ‘90s.
Keeper himself feels he is finding his way at the NCAA level, though noting he has plenty of growth and learning ahead of him.
Keeper is also impressing people outside of the U of Maine program. Michaud said Keeper has made an impact and it hasn’t taken long for positive feedback filter back to the Bears’ coaching staff.
“He’s a smart hockey player, and a lot of people are impressed with his abilities,” said Michaud. “When you talk to the junior coaches back in the MJHL and they spoke highly of him. And we’re always asking for feedback because as a program we’re trying to get better and bring in the right kids.
“And (Keeper) is getting a lot of praise from other coaches,” he added. “He’s a special individual, and we’re excited he’s a Black Bear.”