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Panthers prospect Keeper 'role model' to aboriginal youths

College free agent first from his Cree community in Manitoba to sign NHL contract

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DALLAS -- Brady Keeper stood in front of an interview backdrop outside the Florida Panthers locker room at American Airlines Center on Tuesday, when some of his new teammates walked past.

"Tom Brady!" they chirped, teasing Keeper about the star treatment.

Keeper laughed sheepishly.

"Just really excited to be here," Keeper said. "I've got no words to explain how I feel right now."

Keeper might as well be Tom Brady -- or Drew Doughty -- to the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, an indigenous people in northern Canada.

The 22-year-old defenseman had 63 cents in his bank account when he signed with Florida on Monday as a college free agent out of the University of Maine. He had one suit and a backpack when he flew to Dallas that night.

He skated with the Panthers for the first time on Tuesday morning and will warm up with them before they play the Dallas Stars (8:30 p.m. ET; FS-SW, FS-F, NHL.TV). Who knows? Maybe he'll get a chance to play this season. Maybe he'll make it.

"Being the first guy to sign an NHL contract from the community, I'm kind of looked at as a role model for aboriginal youths all across Manitoba and anywhere else," Keeper said. "I think that's really special for me."

Keeper is from Cross Lake, Manitoba, a place with 8,000 people and one rink eight hours north of Winnipeg.

"It's kind of up there," Keeper said, smiling. "Nobody probably knows where it is."

When Panthers assistant general manager Eric Joyce asked Keeper where he lived, Keeper told him the name of the road.

"I said, 'What number? I've got to put it on the contract,' " Joyce said. "He said, 'Ah, everyone just knows where everyone else lives. We don't have house numbers.' "

Keeper (6-foot-2, 194 pounds) started out skating with his brothers on a rink his father built in the backyard each winter, looking up to Doughty, the Los Angeles Kings defenseman. He grew up to play three seasons for the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

In 2016-17, he had 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists) and 82 penalty minutes in 48 regular-season games, plus 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) and 42 penalty minutes in 15 playoff games. That earned him a trip to a Los Angeles Kings development camp and multiple college offers.

After he had 22 points (six goals, 16 assists) and 88 penalty minutes in 37 games as a freshman at Maine, he had multiple offers to go to NHL development camps but went home to earn money for the family.

He had 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) and 58 penalty minutes in 36 games this season, drawing multiple NHL contract offers. The Panthers landed him with help from two Maine alums: amateur scout Bill Ryan and assistant coach Jack Capuano.

"He's a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman," Joyce said. "He's got a really good shot, good offensive instincts. He's a physical player. … 

"He still has to develop. He's raw. I don't think he's ready to jump right in and contribute tomorrow. But he'll get some time with the NHL team."

The Panthers (32-28-12) entered Tuesday eight points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. Coach Bob Boughner said they weren't giving up and weren't going to rush Keeper into the lineup.

But Boughner met with Keeper in the morning and kept an eye on him during the morning skate.

"Obviously he's a little quiet and wide-eyed, but that's good," Boughner said. "He was on the ice this morning and didn't look out of place. He was moving pucks. You can see he's got some good hand-eye (coordination). He's knocking pucks down, and his passes were hard and flat. He jumped into the drills. So it was good for him to get out there."

The Panthers wanted him to go to meetings, learn the system, experience warmups and go from there.

"Get him settled for a few days, and then we can make the decision about if we want to use him or not," Boughner said. "But him, these next couple weeks are more about him learning and his development. The first week or two of being a pro and see how everything works out."

Keeper has never had the opportunity to go through a full offseason of high-level training. The plan is for him to do that and the Panthers to decide what's best for him in training camp next season.

"Maybe I'll start off in the [American Hockey League] next year in Springfield," Keeper said. "But I'm trying to make the team next year right away. I've just got to work hard, like everybody does, and come in here next year and make something happen."

He has made something happen already, though. His Facebook and Instagram accounts have blown up with support from back home. A video shows hundreds of people cheering for him.

"Hockey players can come from anywhere," Joyce said. "He's a kid who loves the game. He's a kid who always has a smile on his face when he shows up to the rink. He's a great teammate. He's got 63 cents in his bank account right now, his shin pads are taped together, and at the end of the day, he can play."

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