CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Brady Keeper returned home as a celebrity. No, as more than that.
As an inspiration.
He became the first member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation to sign an NHL contract when he joined the Florida Panthers as an undrafted free agent March 19, then made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on March 28.
In Cross Lake, Manitoba, a place with 8,000 people and one rink eight hours north of Winnipeg, people recognized him everywhere this summer. Kids kept coming up to him asking for photos and autographs.
"That really means a lot," Keeper said Wednesday. "I really take that in for myself. I just want kids to grow up looking up to someone, and hopefully they can do the same thing in the future and make it somewhere big."
The challenge now is for Keeper to make it in the NHL permanently.
Video: FLA@OTT: Keeper makes NHL debut with family in crowd
The 23-year-old defenseman never had gone through a professional offseason training and nutrition program before this summer, though he went to development camp with the Los Angeles Kings in 2017 and played two seasons at the University of Maine. Previously he would go home, run sprints and feast on the good cooking of his grandmother and mother.
The Panthers sent Keeper to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to work with Paul Vincent, their skating and skills coach, and Mike Donoghue, their strength and conditioning coach. For eight weeks, as often as five days a week, he worked on the ice and in the gym.
"Leaving home is still hard because I have babies and all that," said Keeper, who has two kids. "But it's a sacrifice I've got to make to play in the NHL or play pro hockey."
Another sacrifice: unhealthy food. His body needs the kind of fuel that will sustain him through an 82-game regular season and more.
"That was a big adjustment for me, and I'm still trying to do it right now," Keeper said. "I think once I get the hang of that, it's going to help me a lot."
Keeper said he spent about a month at home relaxing with family but had Donoghue send him things to do on his own.
"He's got work to do," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "When we kept him [in the program] nice and tight, he was fine. And then he drifted away a little bit. And now we've got to bring him back in. We're very confident that he's going to do it. He just needs a little bit of … he's never trained. Ever. He did train. It worked. Now he's going to see what he really needs to do, and once he gets that down he's got a great chance to play."
Like a lot of young players, Keeper must learn how to be a pro.
"Certain kids are one-year guys," Tallon said. "Some kids are three. Some are five. We've got to keep building and developing them and mentoring them and training them."
Keeper, listed at 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, said he weighs 205 pounds now and feels much better physically. The experience he gained from his first NHL game helps mentally too.
"I think it just showed I can play up there," Keeper said. "It's just for me to get the confidence to play up there and play hard every night and just know I could be there.
"I've just got to play my game. I like the physical side of hockey and also the offensive side. I think I'm a very rounded defenseman and can play both ways. So I think it's for me to keep working hard and build some more muscle."
Keeper made an impression the past two days at rookie camp.
"He had one of those hits out there this morning that got our attention," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I'm sure he got the players' attention as well. We'll talk about him as we go along here."
Keeper will join the veterans at training camp Friday. The goal is to make the Panthers out of camp of course. But he said he can control only what he can control, and that is his work ethic, showing the executives and coaches he's willing to do whatever it takes.
He also isn't worried about living up to expectations as a role model back home.
"I don't think it's pressure for me," Keeper said. "I'm [doing] what I love to do. So it's just coming in and having fun every day."