The 26-year-old defenceman lay on the ice, screaming in pain after breaking both the tibia and fibia in his left leg at the end of training camp last September. It was his first injury in his professional hockey career, and one that forced a second abbreviated season in a row after COVID-19 curtailed the previous campaign.
"It was hard," said Keeper, who hails from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba. "But to be honest, where I come from, we go through a lot of stuff. So I kind of had that mentality already, like I'm going to come back and come back better than ever."
The Pimicikamak Cree Nation, also known as the Cross Lake Band, is located more than 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
It's one of many First Nations across the country that's begun searching for unmarked graves at a former residential school site. Pimicikamak also declared a state of emergency in 2016 following a rash of suicides.
The community's history remained on Keeper's mind as he healed and rehabilitated from his injury.
“I'm just happy to be on the ice, honestly," he said at Canucks training camp in Whistler, B.C., on Friday. "As my dad reminded me, to be grateful for where I am, especially where I come from. So I kind of keep that in my heart.
"I’m just happy to be playing and I'm gonna try to prove to myself and to the team that I'm trying to make the team here.”
Keeper, a six-foot-two, 197-pound blue liner, played at the University of Maine and in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League before signing his first NHL deal with the Florida Panthers in March 2019.
He played two games for Panthers and 72 in the American Hockey League before signing with the Canucks as a free agent in July 2021, only to see the broken leg wipe out his season.
After months at home with his wife and two young kids — the couple are currently expecting their third child — Keeper returned to Vancouver in April.
“That's when I first got on the ice after my injury," he said. "It took a while throughout the summer to feel normal again. But now I feel good. Ready to go and just happy to be playing hockey again.”
Where, exactly, Keeper may fit in the Canucks organization now that he's healthy remains to be seen.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau admitted that he hasn't been focused on Keeper through the early days of training camp, but said the defenceman is a "pretty solid guy."
Missing an entire season would be tough on any player, he added.
“It's everything, especially at a young age and especially after he signs a one-way (deal)," Boudreau said. "It’s probably the worst thing in his mind that could ever happen.
"But he's worked really hard to get where he is and you know he's gonna play some games and we'll see.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press