Zach Whitecloud is a 24-year-old professional hockey player for the National Hockey League. He currently plays defense for the Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas, and has spent time previously with the former VGK AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, in his time as a pro player.
Whitecloud was born in Manitoba, Canada in November 1996 and is of Native American (specifically Dakota) descent. He was raised in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. Its council and chief provided funds to help Zach’s parents pay for fees and travel costs for the hockey programs he was in when he was young. The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation reservation is where Whitecloud considers home. His family ensured he learned a lot about his heritage and culture by being involved in community events and spending a lot of time with relatives there.
Zach Whitecloud played two seasons of junior hockey with the Virden Oil Capitals before committing to play college hockey at Bemidji State University. He was a leading defenseman in scoring during his freshman year and was invited to attend the Los Angeles Kings development camp prior to the 2017-2018 season. Nothing came of his time there, so he returned to college.
During his sophomore season, he was named WCHA Scholar-Athlete for 2017-2018. He had yet another strong performance for his team with 19 points and 51 blocked shots, the best of any on his team.
But despite being a strong figure on the ice, Zach Whitecloud went undrafted by the NHL. He instead became a free agent and eventually signed a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights in March 2018. He played his first NHL game on April 5, 2018 on the road against the Edmonton Oiler. Despite the team’s overtime loss in that game, he finished with a team-best +3 during 16:42 of time on ice.
Unfortunately Whitecloud was too new to the VGK roster to qualify to participate in Stanley Cup Playoffs that year. As an NHL player, you have to be on the team’s reserve list by the trade deadline, which is in February every year. His late entrance was prohibitive to his participation.
After participating in development camp for the Vegas Golden Knightsprior to the 2018-2019 season, he was sent down to the organization’s AHL affiliate, which at the time was the Chicago Wolves (the new AHL affiliate for Vegas is the Henderson Silver Knights as of the 2020-2021 season).
On Jan 31, 2020, Zach Whitecloud was called up to the NHL once again and cemented himself a spot on the Vegas Golden Knights roster. His pairing with Nick Holden proved to be a defensive and possessive threat. The new coach to the Vegas Golden Knights, Peter DeBoer, noticed something in Whitecloud that he claims “made it impossible to take him out of the linup.”
Zach Whitecloud went on to score his first NHL goal on August 6, 2020 while playing an exhibition game during Stanley Cup Playoffs. His goal tied the game and his team ended up having a 6-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2020 were an anomaly for the NHL – the players all played in a bubble due to Coronavirus sweeping North America. The Vegas Golden Knights and the rest of their conference had been assigned to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. They played all of their games in Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers. They eventually lost to and were eliminated from the Playoffs during the semi-finals by the Dallas Stars.
Whitecloud says that “being in the NHL is something you dream about as a kid. Then once you fulfill that dream, you just want to contribute to your team on a regular basis.” He did not let being undrafted deter him from fulfilling his NHL dream and always tried to turn every negative into a positive. He claimed that “without so much pressure on me, I was always able to play hockey for fun, at a carefree level and development my fundamentals of the game. I think that’s what propelled me through all those levels to where I am now.”
It is no surprise that during all his success, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is very proud of Zach. He shares his story and inspires young people in his community to play sports and follow their dreams. He often still attends community events and speaks at schools, where he emphasizes to young kids the importance of education, healthy lifestyle and community involvement and support. Whitecloud says “People back home love to see their people on TV, playing a sport and succeeding at it. Proving that with dedication and hard work, you can live out all of your dreams. For me, to get to do what I love; playing hockey in the NHL, and being a role model for people at the same time, it’s very special.”
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