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This article was published 6/3/2020 (234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Watch Zach Whitecloud play and the NHL calibre skill set is clear to see. He's a fine skater, operates cooly under pressure and makes excellent, tape-to-tape passes.
Listen to him speak and you hear a mature, thoughtful 23-year-old who, despite going undrafted as a teenager, made a very deliberate plan to develop his game in order to reach the NHL.
He checks all the boxes for an up-and-coming defenceman and since being recalled from the AHL on Jan. 31, the Brandon product has missed only two games, becoming a fixture with the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights.
The 6-2, 209-pounder believes the timing was perfect.
Signed as a much-sought-after free agent in the spring of 2018 following his sophomore season at Bemidji State University, Whitecloud used his two years in the NCAA as a springboard for success at the next level.
"College was the way for me just in terms of where my body was at and where I was maturity-wise as a 19-year-old, still a kid, right?" said Whitecloud prior to the Golden Knights' game against the Winnipeg Jets Friday, his first NHL game in his home province.
"I was still a kid, muscle-wise. So I thought college was the best route for me. Go in there and work with out with our strength team. Obviously, I thought I was going there for four years right but it ended up being two."
Whitecloud has made a career out of being a late bloomer.
He was cut by the AAA midget team in Brandon as a 16-year-old (joining the Central Plains Capitals instead) before a full season of AAA as a 17-year-old in his hometown and the two seasons to follow with the MJHL's Virden Oil Capitals.
Current Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon, then GM and head coach of the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings, offered Whitecloud a shot at the major-junior ranks as a 19-year-old but by that time, the youngster's mind was made up. He was going to college.
Two strong NCAA seasons followed and Whitecloud quickly concluded he needed a bigger challenge.
"I felt I was ready," said Whitecloud. "Those two years I kinda grew and matured and I had (Bemidji State head coach) Tom Serratore who helped me understand what the pro game was going to be like and he treated me as (such). Because he believed I could get there at one point...
"I thought I could go there and mature, and have time time to learn -- that's a grown man's game in college, right? Learn that game and transition, hopefully, to pro."
An immediate jump to the NHL was not in the cards, however. He was expected to pay his dues in the minors.
"He didn't have a lot of experience," said McCrimmon. "He had two years of Junior A, two years of university but last year he played (96 AHL) games. (Wolves head coach) Rocky Thompson was good for him. He's worked to get better, he's very dedicated, a great skater and he's made the step (up) real nicely. He's gained the trust of the coaches, his teammates and he's helping us win."
Since signing with Vegas, Whitecloud played a combined 131 regular-season and playoff games in 1 1/2 seasons with the AHL's Chicago Wolves. It was time well spent.
He has one assist in 14 games with the Knights.
Lately, Whitecloud's playing time has increased to a season-high of 17:32 in Tuesday's 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils. On Friday, he had 14:58 in a 4-0 loss to the Jets while assuming a regular spot in a third pairing with Nick Holden. With Whitecloud's rise, veteran blue-liners Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill have seen their roles diminish.
"I think all of that hit me in college," said Whitecloud. "I had a good season in Chicago, a long season -- (going) to the Calder Cup final. So I learned how to manage my body, manage nutrition, hydration, all those things. Rest. I got a huge exposure to that last year and made sure I looked after myself and took care of business."
His parents, Tim Whitecloud and Donna Cullen, have been supportive throughout.
"They were two people who were there from the beginning, through the ups and downs, and the hard times," said Whitecloud. "... They stuck behind me the entire way and made sure if this was something I wanted to do, they were going to give me the resources to make it happen."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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