A lot of Virden area hockey fans were cheering for the Las Vegas Golden Knights last week.
Former Virden Oil Capitals defenceman Zach Whitecloud made his National Hockey League debut on April 5.
Whitecloud played well in the Golden Knights’ 4-3 road loss to the Edmonton Oilers. The 21-year-old’s former Oil Capitals billet mom Karen Forster was on hand at Rogers Place to see the Brandon product’s NHL dream come true.
“It was overwhelming as it was the first time I had seen him since signing his contract so lots of emotions,” said Forster, who, with her husband Jack, billeted Whitecloud for two seasons, 2014-2016. “Truly incredible to see him out on that ice and he played well. We are extremely proud!”
The defenceman was on the ice for 16:42, blocked one shot, and had a plus-minus rating of plus-3.
Steady and Sure
"He looked steady and sure on the ice during his debut,” Golden Knights beat writer Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal told the Virden Empire-Advance. “It can be a bit disconcerting watching Connor McDavid come at you with the puck and with a full head of steam, but he seemed to handle himself well and I thought he played it smart and simple, not overextending his grasp and just working with his teammates. As debuts go, his was a good one."
The competitive Whitecloud was hoping to be victorious in his first NHL game. In a video interview after the Oilers come-from-behind victory, he said:
“The overall experience was good, but still at the end of the day you don’t want to end the game that way.”
Of Whitecloud getting on the NHL ice for the first time, Oil Capitals Director of Business and Hockey Operation Jamie Hodson said:
“It is a tribute to Zach and his family. They are just impeccable people. He is an extremely hard worker. He is such a well-rounded person. You want so much good for an individual such as that.
“As an organization, we are extremely humbled and excited to be part of the process. As the end of the day, it is about Zach and his ambitions.”
On March 8, Whitecloud opted to not return to Bemidji (Minn.) State University and signed a three-year entry-level deal with Las Vegas. After a winter in which he represented Canada at the pre-Olympic Karjala Cup, Whitecloud was a highly sought-after free agent.
Signing with the Golden Knights in March gave the him a chance to learn NHL lessons before next season.
Carp said, "Having watched Zach practice with the Golden Knights for the past month, you could see his confidence grow from week to week and he appeared to be finding a certain comfort level as he transitioned from college hockey to the pro game.”
Oak Lake start
The son of Donna Cullen and Tim Whitecloud grew up in Brandon, but is a proud member of the Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation. Early on, Whitecloud developed a love of the game playing in Oak Lake with friends.
He suited up in high school hockey with Vincent Massey before two full midget AAA seasons and a pair of successful years with the Oil Capitals.
On the ice in Virden, Whitecloud was a Manitoba Junior Hockey League Second Team All-Star and the Oil Caps’ Top Defenceman award winner. He also impressed off the ice with his personality and character.
“It would be hard to pick one thing that impressed me the most when Zach was in Virden,” Forster said. “He is kind, respectful, has such a passion to learn about food, conditioning, anything that made him better. He never took anything for granted. He knew he had to work hard and keep a positive attitude.”