Brady Keeper took his customary rookie solo lap Thursday, and the historical significance brought out a whole range of emotions from the Florida Panthers rookie's family in attendance at Canadian Tire Centre.
The 22 year-old defenseman is the first person from Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba to make it to the NHL, and as soon as he stepped onto the ice for warmups, his mother Helga began to cry.
"I'm just really happy to get a chance to play in the NHL," Keeper said. "Obviously my family is really proud of me and my community back home and other aboriginal people. But I'm just really excited to play. I have no words to explain how I feel. I'm really happy."
Keeper had a bunch of family members who made the trip from Cross Lake, Manitoba, a community of 8,000 people located eight hours north of Winnipeg. Among his family in attendance with his mom was his dad Anthony, and his girlfriend Shaylyn Constant with their two children.
Video: FLA@OTT: Keeper makes NHL debut with family in crowd
Constant brought a sign that read "Keeper cool, Keeper Calm" and got a family photo with Keeper on the ice. Once he came off the ice, Keeper tossed a puck to his grandma.
Keeper, a college free agent out of the University of Maine, signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers on March 18 and had 63 cents in his bank account, and one suit and a backpack when he flew to Dallas to meet the team for his first skate the next day.
It was a huge milestone for his small community, and he had plenty of people back home tuning into his debut.
"I know they're all looking up to him," Constant told TSN. "I know everyone is so excited for him. Brady is so excited for everyone that's watching him. This is what he's worked for."
Keeper earned respect from the team for his composure on a special night.
"He was taking it all in," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "I thought he really performed well under the pressure. Everyone remembers their first game and how many nerves you have and how tough it is to focus."
Defensive partner MacKenzie Weegar gave Keeper kudos for his play during 12:40 of ice time.
"I actually had an absolute blast with him," Weegar said. "He's a great kid. He wanted to learn the whole game, so I'm happy for him."
But the greatest compliment came from veteran goalie Roberto Luongo, who didn't have to do any rookie scolding.
"It's great, we're really excited for him," Luongo said. "I thought he played really well. He didn't look out of place, which is important. And he didn't turn the puck over so I didn't have to yell at him, which was great."