Under the bright lights of the National Hockey League playoffs, former Virden Oil Capitals defenceman Zach Whitecloud proved he belonged at his sport’s highest level.
Playing for the Vegas Golden Knights, the Brandon product scored the first two goals of his NHL career. While in the Edmonton “bubble” during the 2020 postseason, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound blue liner led the team in penalty-kill minutes.
“I think I found my identity, who I am as a person within the organization, and what kind of player I am,” said Whitecloud, a proud member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. “I started getting some penalty kill time and playing in some more important situations as the games went on. For myself, that’s something I take huge pride in – my teammates can trust me, my coaches can trust me, my GMs can trust me, and my owner can trust me to go out there and perform in those situations and get the job done for the team.”
On NHL.com, Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who happens to be the former owner and ex-coach of Whitecloud’s hometown Brandon Wheat Kings Western Hockey League squad, said:
“I love the fact that we’ve had a young guy like Zach Whitecloud come in and we couldn’t give him enough. He never faltered, he never failed, he met every challenge, he’s established himself as a really good NHL defenceman, so I think that’s really encouraging.”
At the Empire-Advance deadline, the start of the next NHL season was still up in the air. A mid-January beginning was rumoured. Living and training in Las Vegas, Whitecloud said he was “trying to be as ready as possible for any start date that comes up. There’s a lot of moving pieces that are beyond my pay grade and my knowledge level. You stay ready and get ready for the season as best you can.”
Time in Virden
Whitecloud played two full seasons – 2014-2016 – with the Junior A Oil Capitals. In his second season, he was a Manitoba Junior Hockey League Second Team All-Star and won the Oil Caps’ Top Defenceman award. Whitecloud has fond memories of his time in Virden, especially with his billet family, Jack and Karen Forster, and the family of Chad and Rita Scharff, on whose farm he worked.
“It was such a tight-knit community,” Whitecloud said. “That was really good for me. It kind of helped me practice getting out to the schools and interacting with people on a personal level and getting to know your surroundings and the people you share a living space with. Every second I had in Virden was very much appreciated.”
Whitecloud continues to keep in touch with the Forsters. They attended some of his games when he played for Bemidji (Minn.) State University and drove to his first NHL game in 2018.
“Getting to know those people and having them look after me and teach me little life lessons as I went through junior hockey was huge for me,” Whitecloud said.
In his second season, he worked at the Scharff farm. He considers Chad, Rita, and their children Cade and Danika to be extended family.
“I always Facetime them and contact them and see how the kids are doing and things like that,” he said. “They introduced me to a life of farming and ranching. I gained a big passion and respect for that line of work as well. Something I’d definitely consider doing in the future as hockey winds down for myself whenever that is.”
The son of Tim Whitecloud and Donna Cullen is the NHL's first Indigenous player from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. When asked about representing Sioux Valley, Whitecloud said “it means everything.”
“(Being able to) represent them well in the manner that makes them proud is always exciting for me. I try to stay in communication with people from there, mainly through my dad … I get a lot of messages from my dad from people back home and all over Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Ontario. The people support me in a manner that I never thought would happen. I’m very thankful for the community of Sioux Valley.”
Whitecloud strives to give back to the Sioux Valley community however he can and to try to inspire young people – both there and wherever he is. He said that interacting with young people is one of his favourite things.
“Share what I’ve learned along the way and share what has helped me get through those stages in my life that those kids are going through. …
“Every kid comes from a different background. Every kid comes from a different home. Every kid hasn’t had the same circumstances as myself. I learned from people growing up around me who came from worst situations than I did and some people who came from very good situations. So, I know the aspects of those lives and I understand the views through other people’s eyes just as much as my own. My message is not going to reach everyone because I took a different path than a lot of people that I know, but it is not about that, it’s about the little things that I learned about attitude and treating people properly and going out and making a difference in the world.”
Whitecloud spent two seasons at Bemidji State at the NCAA Division I level. An undrafted free agent, he suited up for his first NHL game for the Golden Knights in 2018. He spent the next season with Vegas’ top affiliate, the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Whitecloud posted six goals and 28 points in 74 games as a rookie pro.
Last season was split between the Windy City and Sin City teams. Whitecloud had seven points in 35 games with the Wolves. Peter DeBoer took over as the Golden Knights head coach on Jan. 15. Whitecloud was recalled from Chicago on Jan. 31. He had an assist in 16 regular season games with Vegas.
In an Aug. 26 NHL.com article, DeBoer said:
"He was one of those we stuck in the lineup and he just took off. He made it impossible to take him out. He's a right shot on a group where we don't have a lot of right shots and he really does a little bit of everything. He can kill penalties, he's a big strong kid, he skates well and defends well, and he's got a good stick. But he can also make plays with the puck, and it's the ultimate compliment when high-skilled forwards want to be on the ice with you or not complaining when on the ice with you. I think he has those abilities and has gotten better and better."
“I think my game has come a long way,” Whitecloud said. “That’s not me tooting my own horn. That’s just me being realistic with where I’m at in my career. I have a good sense of what it takes to perform and do my job and contribute on a nightly basis.
“If I stick to the fundamentals of my game and what makes me successful to make the team successful … If I can do that every night and not just during games but in practices and things like that, then I’m headed in the right direction everyday. I think that’s the biggest thing – just keep getting better every single day and don’t take a step back. Just keep doing what I do and that’s have fun playing hockey, play the game that I love, and just go perform and do my job.”
The 24-year-old said he has developed his game and his confidence in his two pro seasons.
“Now I’m at the point where I can go out and do my job and not be fearful of mistakes or anything like that,” Whitecloud said. “I have complete confidence in my game that I can go out and do my job every night.
“As a young player in the league, I think it’s underrated for guys who can go out with as much confidence as I have. That’s not me being cocky. That’s just me being confident in my abilities and how I think the game and how I see the game and how I react to every single thing going on around me.
“I think more importantly it goes to show what kind of teammate you are too. Guys like having you around and the coaches and the general managing staff. You’re in this organization to promote the Golden Knights as best as possible – whether that’s on the ice or in the community or on social media. I pride myself on being a good person first and then every little thing will take care of itself at the arena and on the big stage in front of the fans.”
Whitecloud’s strong play helped the Golden Knights make it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
“It was a good run. Obviously, it came up short,” he said. “The team is making strides. We’re definitely primed to win here in the future.”
In a round-robin tournament to determine playoff seeding, the Golden Knights went 3-0-0 to capture the top seed. The squad beat Chicago in five games in the first round and Vancouver in seven games in the second. In the conference finals, the Golden Knights fell in five games to Dallas.
“I enjoyed every single aspect,” Whitecloud said of his first NHL playoff experience. “I’m the kind of kid that came from a background of hockey where every single time you step on the ice, I play as if it could be my last time. You go out there, have fun, play as well as you can.
“Just like life, not everything is going to go your way. Just keep trekking through the obstacles and eventually you’re going to start playing your game and start playing well.”
In his rookie pro season, Whitecloud helped the Wolves reach the AHL’s Calder Cup finals. He led all AHL defencemen with 15 points in 22 playoff games.
“I got that experience last year in the American League with the Chicago Wolves to kind of get my taste of what a true playoff run is,” Whitecloud said. “Now I got to do it at the highest level possible. That experience prepared me for what our team went through this year.”
In the playoffs, Whitecloud had two goals and an assist in 20 playoff contests for Vegas. While grading the Golden Knights in the postseason in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that newspaper’s Ben Gotz wrote that Whitecloud’s “toughness was commendable.”
The 2020 NHL postseason was like no other. Teams were sequestered in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto at the start before the eastern teams headed west later in the playoffs.
“I had a blast,” Whitecloud said. “I loved every second of it. Obviously, you’re stuck in one place but at the end of the day you get to play in the National Hockey League and that’s what I’ve been wanting to do my entire life, so whatever situation came towards us I was more than happy to do because I get to play hockey with buddies, have fun doing it, and try to win a Stanley Cup in the process.”
However, Whitecloud noted that being sequestered away from home could be challenging for players with families. For example, his regular D-partner in the playoffs, Nick Holden, is married with four children.
“It was like a hockey tournament for me,” Whitecloud said. “You got to go hang out with the boys and play hockey. I also understand that it’s very tough for my teammates that have families and wives at home that they only get to connect with through Facetime.”
He later said that, “From my perspective, I was just lucky to be able to go to a place and compete for a Stanley Cup and do it in the safest way possible. The NHL did a great job to get us back on the ice and give the fans something to watch and to cheer for. At the end of the day, I think that was the most important part.”