By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
The OCN Blizzard were by far the most dominant team in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in the early 2000s. They led the way in terms of expansion for junior hockey in this province, and became a favourite team to cheer for the north as well as First Nations communities.
Years later, the Blizzard are working hard to return to their spot on top, while drawing from a pool of talent who grew up rooting for the Blizzard as youth.
That includes a pair of brothers on this year’s squad – Anthony and Brady Keeper.
Both hail from Cross Lake, which is located north of Lake Winnipeg, 450 kilometres from The Pas/OCN. The brothers grew up cheering for the Blizzard, and now they’re living their childhood dreams.
“Ever since I was little I cheered for the Blizzard,” said Brady Keeper. “Growing up, I always wanted to play here.
“(As a fan), I always liked Konrad McKay – I would hear stories about how he would get points and how he would fight.”
Playing for the Blizzard is an honour for the Keeper brothers who have played minor hockey together most of their lives. Like many First Nations hockey players, the OCN Blizzard were something to aspire to, and now they’re carrying on the tradition of playing junior A hockey in northern Manitoba.
“I also grew up wanting to play for the Blizzard,” said Anthony Keeper. “Watching them play, it really pushed me to work harder to accomplish my dream of coming here. Especially with all the First Nations players who played here during their championship years.”
Brady Keeper, a defenceman, is in his third season with the Blizzard. He sits fourth in team scoring with nine goals and 16 assists. He also has 159 penalty minutes – second most in the league (behind team mate Tre Potskin, who has 194). Last year he scored 13 times while adding 28 assists for the Blizzard.
“I like both (the scoring and the physical part),” he said. “I think I’m better at the scoring part though.”
Brother Anthony Keeper is a rookie this year. He played seven games with the Blizzard last year, but spent most of his time with the Norman Northstars Midget AAA team. Last season the forward had 14 goals and 18 assists in 44 games. This season, the rookie has two goals and nine assists.
“It feels good to know I’m sticking with the team all year,” said Anthony Keeper. “Playing here is (starting to be really) comfortable. Last year I had to get used to the pace and the bigger bodies, but I’m getting used to it now.”
The Blizzard are currently battling for home-ice advantage in the survivor series portion of the MJHL playoffs, or perhaps a top six finish. Their season has admittedly been up and down, but the team appears ready to make a run now that the trade deadline is behind them and they know what they have to work with going forward.
“I hope we can get on a roll and get some wins together for the playoffs,” said Brady Keeper.
Added Anthony Keeper: “(Coach Jason Smith) keeps telling us to work hard and try and move up the standings. We want to get into that sixth spot.”