The Opaskwayak Cree Nation Blizzard have been battling to stay in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League playoffs but off ice they've been battling heartbreak for a nearby community amid a suicide crisis.

The team is headed to the Cree community of Pimicikamak Wednesday morning, hoping to boost the spirits of youth.

"It's something we need to do, there's 11 players on the team who are aboriginal kids, they know what it's like," said head coach and manager Jason Smith.

Since December, six young people have died by suicide in Pimicikamak — also known as Cross Lake. At least 100 students remain on a suicide watch list, according to the band office.

The hockey team is expected to have a community luncheon when it arrives, after that players are planning to speak with youth at the school.

A team practice will also be held to give youth a chance to see the work the players put in each day. Afterward, the public is invited to skate with the team, take pictures and hang out.

OCN Blizzard

Head coach Jason Smith (middle) says taking his team to Pimicikamak to share messages of hope during their community's suicide crisis is just something he needed to do. Especially since two of his players are from the Cree community, including Brady Keeper (far left). (Jason Smith)

Two of the team members are from Cross Lake, brothers Brady Keeper, 19, and Anthony Keeper, 18.

"It's pretty hard to see what's going on over there. It hurts us personally too, what's going on because we are from there and we know everybody in the community," Brady said.

The Keeper brothers say they grew up with supportive parents. They recall their father flooding the backyard to make a rink.

"It was good for us that our dad kept us busy all through the winter and [even] the summer time," Brady said.

Meanwhile Anthony acknowledges the hardships that came with growing up in a remote community. At the same time, he wants those still living in Pimicikamak to address what he feels is the elephant in the room.

'Heartbreaking'

"Drugs and alcohol are one of the biggest impacts there so we need more stuff to do there," Anthony said.

He says dealing with the impact of someone taking their own life is hard to handle.

Anthony said he hopes talking about negative habits might lead to positive outcomes.

"There is no school in the world that can give you experience like a life experience can. So I think it's important that the youth see this," - Jason Smith, OCN Blizzard Head Coach and Manager 

"I just want the community to be back to the way it was when we were younger," Anthony said.

A vision his own coach strongly believes in.

"There is no school in the world that can give you experience like a life experience can. So I think it's important that the youth see this," Smith said.

Smith said you can achieve this success by teaching youth their life experiences are important and valued.

"Whether or not it's just going on a camping trip or going hunting, stuff like that. [It's about] being outdoors and being around family and having fun," Smith said.

"It doesn't necessarily mean you have to leave the reserve and go to the city because some people aren't comfortable doing that and that's totally fine. Just don't get stuck in [a] rut and just doing the same thing every day."

An honest message the Keeper brothers hope to spread when they head home. 

"[We've] just got to be positive when we go there and try have fun with the kids. I guess try help them forget about what's going on there and bring the happiness back into the community," Brady said. 


If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, these resources are available:​