Whitecloud Indigenous role model for Golden Knights in Playoffs

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The Vegas Golden Knights rookie defenseman assures them he’s anything but.

“It’s playoff hockey, it’s the best time of year, and we have a really good chance of going deep here,” Whitecloud said. “What more excitement do you need?”

The Golden Knights are tied 1-1 in their Western Conference Second Round series against the Vancouver Canucks, with Game 3 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Thursday (9:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

Whitecloud has been a steady contributor for Vegas this postseason with two points (one goal, one assist) and averaging 16:17 of time on ice per game.

The 23-year-old scored his first NHL goal in his second postseason game on Aug. 6; it tied the game in the third period and helped propel the Golden Knights to a 6-4 win against the St. Louis Blues in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in Edmonton, the Western hub city. 

“It’s something that you dream about as a kid, right?” said Whitecloud, who signed an entry-level contract Vegas as a free agent out of Bemidji State University in 2018, and signed a two-year, $1.45 million contract (average annual value $725,000) with the Golden Knights on Sunday. “First you obviously want to first make it to the NHL and once you fulfill that dream you want to contribute on a regular basis.”

Whitecloud’s presence in the playoffs is contributing to excitement in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, a reservation of about 1,080 people located 30 miles west of Brandon, Manitoba.

“It’s been a tremendous uplifting experience for our whole community,” said Tim Whitecloud, Zach’s father. “Numerous people who’ve never watched hockey, even the elderly men and women, are staying up late to watch the games and they’re very proud that he’s representing our community and Manitoba and Brandon in general.”

Vegas coach Peter DeBoer didn’t know much about Whitecloud when he was hired as coach on Jan. 15, 2020, replacing Gerard Gallant. When Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee asked DeBoer to look at the organization’s depth players to get a feel for what the team had, Whitecloud was recalled from Chicago of the American Hockey League on Jan. 31 and quickly impressed with one assist, averaging 14:19 of ice time, in 16 regular-season games.

“He was one of those we stuck in the lineup and he just took off,” DeBoer said. “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.”

That’s high praise for a player who was considered more of a can’t-make-it than can’t-miss prospect growing up. Whitecloud wasn’t drafted by a bantam team, was cut twice by his local junior team, was only recruited by one NCAA college and bypassed in NHL drafts.

He turned the negatives into positives.

“With the limited expectations that I had for myself in hockey, that my parents had and more so other people had around our hockey teams, our city had, it allowed me to play so carefree that I could literally go out and play the fundamentals of the game and just have fun, and I think that’s what propelled me through all those levels,” Whitecloud said.

Whitecloud finally stuck with the Brandon AAA team on his third try then played three seasons for Virden of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League from 2013-16. He played two seasons at Bemidji State, where he scored 36 points (seven goals, 29 assists) in 77 games and was named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s All-Rookie Team in 2016-17. The following season, he led Bemidji players with 51 blocked shots and was named to the WCHA’s All-Academic Team.

“When I got to Junior A and I made it there and I was very grateful, and I got hungrier and hungrier,” he said. “When I got Junior A, I wanted college, when I got college, I wanted the NHL.”

Vegas assigned Whitecloud to Chicago, where he scored 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 74 games in 2018-19. He led all AHL defensemen in scoring in the Calder Cup Playoffs that season with 15 points (three goals, 12 assists). He scored seven points (two goals, five assists) in 35 AHL games this season.

Whitecloud’s presence in the NHL and the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a dream come true for the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. Though he was raised in Brandon, he considers the Sioux Valley reservation home.

His father made sure his son learned about his heritage by attending community events, spending time with relatives and playing hockey there.

The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is invested in Whitecloud — literally. Its council and chief provided funds to help his parents cover their son’s youth hockey fees and travel costs as part of a program available to all families in the community.

“For me, it’s pretty exciting,” Sioux Valley Dakota Nation chief Jennifer Bone said. “I’m proud of him. I remember back in the day when he was playing hockey in Brandon and Virden and Bemidji. It’s nice to see him come a long way. I’m pretty proud of him and his family.”

Whitecloud said he’s proud of his Sioux heritage and of the community that helped launch his career.

Growing up, he took inspiration from players like Jordin Tootoo, Canada’s first Inuk player who overcame addiction and mental health issues to play 723 NHL games from 2003-17 and score 161 points (65 goals, 96 assists) for the Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks. 

“He’s out of the game now, but he was a guy who showed me that you can go through so many things in life that, for me as a kid, I couldn’t imagine going through and still make it in the NHL, succeed and have a good life,” Whitecloud said. “He’s one of those guys who set the standard for a lot of us guys coming up and gave us something to shoot for.”

Now Whitecloud sees himself and fellow NHL players and Manitobans like Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear and Florida Panthers defenseman Brady Keeper as part of a rising generation of role models for Canada’s indigenous youth.

Like Whitecloud, Bear and Keeper each made his NHL postseason debut this month.

“Definitely people back home love to see their people playing on the big stage, and watching them on TV, watching them succeed and doing what they love and showing that with dedication and hard work you can get to these places and live all your dreams,” Whitecloud said. “For me to do what I love and play in the NHL and kind of be a role model not only for people back home but for all over Canada, it’s definitely special. It’s special for me and Ethan, and I know it’s special for Brady.”

Whitecloud speaks at Sioux Valley schools, stressing the importance of education and a healthy lifestyle, and regularly attends community cultural events.

“He’s sharing his story and inspiring our young people here in the community,” Bone said. “We still have a lot of young people who play hockey, play sports, and look up to him as a role model.”

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