LAVAL – Before the construction of the Kichi Sipi Bridge in 2002, there was no all-season road that ran from Cross Lake to Winnipeg, 700 kilometers south. Arriving at the mouth of Pipestone Lake, the ferry served to connect the Cree community of 9,000 to Route 374, then Route 373. A detour to the north then allowed you to take Highway 6 to Manitoba’s capital.
“We had to drive for a good two hours on a gravel road,” he recalled recently. Brady Keeper in the quiet of the abandoned dressing room. I don’t remember exactly when it was paved, but today it’s only about 15 minutes on gravel. »
You won’t be surprised to learn that no NHL player has yet seen the light of day in Cross Lake – “Pimicikamak” in the Cree language – at the time the Laval Rocket defenseman was having fun with his four brothers and two sisters on the ice. the ice rink his father maintained behind the family home. The reasons behind this reality are partly geographical. But there is something else.
Like many indigenous communities in Canada, Cross Lake continues to suffer the consequences of past attempts at assimilation and is often in the blind spot of governments. In 2017, a CBC team went there to investigate the causes of a wave of suicides affecting the young population. The report produced there describes a village undermined by alcoholism, drug use, school dropouts and domestic violence.
Keeper had already left Cross Lake to play with the junior A team at that time, but the tragedy did not leave him indifferent. “It was crazy. These people were people we knew. Some were older than me, some younger. It’s sad because we don’t have much help there. It’s the same thing in many communities, not just in Manitoba.”
Keeper will often repeat during the thirty minute discussion that his siblings were lucky. Their parents, a teacher and a worker at the local clinic, tried to keep their children on the right path. “They kept us busy, they made us walk straight,” he said. They constantly told us about the importance of making the right decisions. There is so little to do there that it doesn’t take much to get into trouble. »
Compared to his childhood friends, Keeper assures that he had it easy. Faced with the athletes he faces today in the professional ranks, it’s quite the opposite.
At the age of 15, he was excluded from the selection camp for the U18 AAA team of his region. Same thing next year, but with a little more cruelty. “They cut me off and then called me back to ask me if I still wanted to play. And the day before the first home game, they sent me home. » Convinced that he was not appreciated to the right extent, he ended up in the junior B league.
At age 18, he finally reached the highest level that Cross Lake youths could usually aspire to by earning his spot in the Blizzard of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), a Junior A club founded three and a half hours down the road from his home. He played there for three seasons.
Brady Keeper and Tyler JohnsonAt the age of 19, Keeper had an encounter that would change his life. During the summer tournament, he caught the eye of Alfie Michaud, a former goaltender who briefly reached the NHL and then studied coaching at his alma mater, the University of Maine. Michaud relayed his observations to his colleagues, including Montrealer Ben Guite, who began courting Keeper.
“I attended a camp in Muskegon with the USHL team, then some kind of tryout somewhere in Manitoba. When I got off the ice, someone met me and offered me a full scholarship,” Keeper says, with a discreet sneer of disbelief in his voice.
Keeper first moved outside his home province when he was 21 years old. The opportunity was unexpected, but as soon as he entered this terrible social elevator, the novice was overcome by a strong dizziness.
“I came to the summer school. After two or three days I tried to stop. My plane ticket has been bought, he says. I think I was just scared. Not because I’m not good enough, the hockey aspect didn’t bother me. But being away from my family, away from my surroundings… I was afraid to try. »
The guard says Alfie Michaud worked like hell to convince his ward to persevere. NHL players started calling him trying to convince him to stick it out. Jordin Tootoo’s struck a particularly sensitive chord. The dilemma was finally ended by the decision of his girlfriend at the time, now the mother of his three boys, to join him.
“I have no idea what I would have done today if I hadn’t stayed. I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest. I would probably have more children! », the 27-year-old athlete laughs shyly.
Brady Keeper and Brigette LacquetteKeeper played both of his seasons in Orono. He looked so good that in the spring of 2019 NHL teams offered him contracts. He accepted it from Florida Panthers, with whom he played the first game before the summer vacation. In his community, Keeper was already a local star as he made it to Junior A. That summer, Cross Lake welcomed him as it would a Stanley Cup champion in Sorel, Ancienne-Lorette or Gaspé.
In this village where everyday life crumbles under the weight of emptiness and hope is a rare commodity, Keeper has become a symbol of success and his desire is to give back to those who dream of following in his footsteps. Among the examples of his involvement, he specifically cites the recent creation of B2 Hockey with former Olympian Brigette Lacquette, a program aimed at indigenous communities that emphasizes the importance of mental health and good lifestyle through sports.
“The young people there need role models to follow, someone who helps them believe that there is a reward at the end of the road if they make the right decisions. They have to be able to believe that if I could do it, so can they. I hope to be a glimmer of hope that inspires the next generation to try and persevere, whether in hockey or in school. I wish more young people would dare to follow their dreams without fear of failure. »
Brady Keeper he might not play another game in the NHL. If he continues to use his achievements to raise his own, it won’t really matter.