CROSS LAKE — It was surreal, Brady Keeper kept saying, because that’s the only word he could find to describe what he was feeling. The parade through the streets, the crowds of wide-eyed children gathered around him and his hometown arena, resplendent with banners bearing his name, filled with thousands of familiar people.
He was so grateful for all they had done, and because he gets more nervous speaking to a crowd than playing hockey in front of countless spectators — "I’ll have to work on that," he said — the 22-year-old Florida Panthers defenceman kept his speech short, and still, somehow, found the words that said it all.
"I’m very, very proud of where I’m from."
Where he is from is proud of him, too. So on Wednesday, when Keeper made his triumphant return to Pimicikamak Cree Nation for the first time since signing his NHL contract last month, the community embraced him with a hero’s welcome. Just one game into his nascent pro career, he is already a legend at home.
This is a place where, almost overnight, cars blossomed with Florida Panthers flags, and shoulders were draped in Panthers jerseys. It is a place where Keeper mounted a fire truck to parade through Cross Lake, followed by a long line of vehicles decorated in Florida Panthers logos, horns honking triumphantly all the way.
The parade made its way back to the arena, where thousands of well-wishers waited to receive him. Kids swirled around him; elders beamed as they snapped selfies beside the young man they’d watched grow into a burgeoning pro hockey star. Cheers swept through the rink as he inched his way through the crowd.
On one side of the arena, Brady’s father, Anthony Keeper, watched the scene unfold with shining eyes. It still feels like yesterday, he said, that he was at this same rink, watching a pint-sized Brady wobble over the ice on unsteady legs; now, he and his wife were watching him sign autographs for hundreds of Cross Lake kids.
"It’s hard to describe how I feel," Anthony said, as he surveyed the scene. "It’s overwhelming I guess… The kids are really inspired. It makes them more likely to continue with their dreams, whatever they have. I’m happy for Brady, and as well as the little kids that are here… I have no words to explain."
In truth, Keeper had slipped home Tuesday night. Few in the community knew he was back. He spent Tuesday night watching playoff hockey, had a quiet night with his family, and savoured being back on his home territory. He had missed home so much, while he was playing hockey at the University of Maine.
Besides, there were reasons to keep it quiet. For weeks, kids had been asking his parents when Brady would come back; days before his return, a rumour went around that he had returned early, so a gaggle of kids showed up at the Keeper family’s home hoping for autographs, or just to catch a glimpse of Brady.
So, as he made his triumphant return, the community buzzed with excitement. The local radio station played Tina Turner’s hit Simply the Best, and dedicated it to Keeper. Before the parade, Keeper stopped for breakfast at a cosy restaurant; moments later, Warren Halcrow rushed in the door, carrying a Florida flag for Keeper to sign.
Halcrow has known Keeper for years; they used to play ball against each other. Now, seeing Keeper’s rise brought "tears of joy," Halcrow said; he got chills seeing him step on the ice with the Panthers for the first time.
"It makes me so proud to be from Cross Lake, too," Halcrow said.
That pride sparkled throughout Keeper’s homecoming festivities. The ceremony was emotional, eloquent, layered with meaning; elder Shirley Sinclair stood onstage and called Keeper’s success a "blessing." As she delivered the Lord’s Prayer, Keeper’s grandfather, Frank McKay, dabbed his eyes with the sleeve of his Florida jersey.
There were words of gratitude, of hope, of elation. In a speech that blazed with raw emotion, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who is also from Cross Lake, called the moment "the greatest day in Pimicikamak’s history," and turned to look at Keeper, sitting surrounded by his family onstage.
"Pimicikamak Cree Nation has made it to the NHL. That is something we will always remember," Settee said, his voice thundering through the arena. "You made us proud, you made us cry, you made us shout and most of all, you put Pimicikamak Cree Nation on the map all over the world."
The crowd, hearing those words, surged to its feet with a resounding cheer.
There were gifts for Keeper, his family, his agent, and his University of Maine assistant coach Alfie Michaud, who had taken Keeper under his wing. They received blankets, to represent the care and protection of the community. The hockey star received a framed photo of aurora borealis, to remember that he carries the north with him.
For he still has a long road to walk, and it will carry him far from home. At the end of the season, the Panthers gave him marching orders to get stronger, so after a few weeks in Cross Lake he will head somewhere — he’s not sure where yet — to train. "Make him dance powwow for a day, he’ll get strength," one MKO staffer had joked.
But for now, he is home on Treaty 5 territory — or rather, as Pimicikamak Chief Tommy Monias joked at the ceremony, "it’s now Panthers territory" — and with his family around him. They have supported him for all these years, through the ups and downs of chasing a hockey career, and now they have a little time to let it all soak in.
"I can’t even explain how I feel, it’s crazy," Keeper said. "Seeing all the people here, the kids, I know it means a lot to them, and it means a lot to myself, too… I hope it shows that even coming from a reservation of 8,000 people of Cross Lake, Manitoba, you can do anything in life, whether it’s at sports or whatever.
"It just shows that if you put in the hard work and the dedication, you can do anything you want."
Brady Keeper signs autographs Wednesday for fans in Cross Lake, the northern community of 8,000 where the hockey player grew up.
Updated on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at 10:58 PM CDT: Adds photo
April 18, 2019 at 7:35 AM: Adds photos
10:31 AM: fixes cutline