MJHL Web Correspondent
Just two years removed from the MJHL, Zach Whitecloud now finds himself on the international hockey stage, recently named to Team Canada’s roster for the upcoming pre-Olympic tournament in Finland.
Whitecloud, who played for Virden Oil Capitals, will join a number of former NHL players for the tournament which begins Nov. 8.
Whitecloud is currently playing for the Bemidji State University Beavers. This past summer he was invited to an evaluation camp hosted by the Los Angeles Kings. From junior A hockey to on the doorstep of the NHL – that’s one heck of a year.
“Going to L.A. was a big step forward in my career,” Whitecloud recently told MJHL web correspondent Derek Holtom.
“I took a lot of things away from L.A., on how to be a pro and how to conduct yourself. I also came away looking at the game differently, on making sure to keep it simple, which is important in the success of a lot of NHL defencemen.”
Joining Whitecloud on the Beavers’ defence will be Justin Baudry, formerly of the Steinbach Pistons, and recent Winkler Flyers grad Tyler Jubenvill, who joins as a freshman this year.
In his first year of NCAA hockey, Whitecloud put together an extremely solid campaign, scoring three goals and adding 17 assists in 40 games. He was added 41 penalty minutes, and had a plus-minus rating of plus three.
“The jump is significant, and once I started playing, and even in practice, I noted the pace really picked up,” he said. “You’re not allowed to make mistakes, and you are expected to conduct yourself as a pro.”
“At (the college level), you have a specific role, and you only have two games a week to up your stock, so it makes practicing all the more competitive as guys compete to get in the lineup. Guys are fighting for spots every week, and Monday to Thursday is when you fight for your life to play Friday and Saturday.”
The Brandon native has established a reputation for being able to contribute from the blueline. In his rookie season with the Virden Oil Capitals back in 2014, Whitecloud had a modest three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 57 games. The following season saw Whitecloud’s offensive prowess take flight, as he scored 10 times and added 30 assists for 40 points in 59 games – all while also adding 105 penalty minutes.
His ascent to the NCAA level from Virden is another great example of the MJHL producing quality players.
“It’s like the old saying goes, if you have skill they’re going to find you,” said Whitecloud. “Teams have scouts and guys hired to find those diamonds in the rough – to find guys like me who they think can make that jump.”
“For me, I think it comes down to doing all the right things in junior,” he added. “There was nothing more important to me than my dream to play professional hockey.”
He also credits his coaches from his time in Virden, including head coach Troy Leslie, who he personally thanked for helping advance to the next level.
“They helped me become well-rounded, and gave me every opportunity, whether it was more ice time, to getting into the schools to visit kids, to helping out in the community,” noted Leslie. “If you are committed, you can get recognized.
Now on the radar of teams at the NHL level, and also a rising star in the NCAA, Whitecloud is closer than ever to playing professional hockey.
“I get asked what I plan to do (stay in school or look to turn pro) a lot now,” said Whitecloud. “My parents feel school is a top priority and so do I.
“Right now I am strictly focused on playing for the guys, the coaches, and the Beaver logo on my jersey,” he added. “If I end up signing a contract at the end of this year, then that’s what was meant to be, but that’s all the on backburner. I’m letting other people worry about that – I’m only worrying about going to war for my brothers”.
Former NHLers Rene Bourque, Christian Thomas and Ben Scrivens will also be part of Team Canada’s roster for the Karjala Cup. Others on Team Canada squad are former KHL defenceman Chris Lee and NCAA players Dylan Sikura and Whitecloud.
Lee played with Team Canada at the World Hockey Championship earlier this year and attended training camp with the L.A. Kings.
Bourque spent last season with the Colorado Avalanche and is currently playing in the Swedish Hockey League. He scored 12 goals and posted six assists in 65 games last season, bringing his career total to 163 goals and 316 points in 725 NHL games.
Thomas, son of former NHLer Steve Thomas, is currently playing with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and owns one goal and three points through six games. He played six games during the 2015-16 with the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes. In total, he’s appeared in 27 career NHL contests, posting one goal and three points.
Scrivens, a veteran of 144 career NHL games, owns a 14-4-2 record with the KHL’s Ufa Salavat Yulayev this season. He’s posted a .920 save percentage and a 2.20 goals-against average with two shutouts in 20 games this season. He spent time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens during his NHL career, posting a 2.92 goals-against average and a ,905 save percentage.
Sikura, 22, is off to a strong start to the season with Northeastern University, posting six goals and 12 points in five games. He was sixth-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014. Whitecloud, 20, owns three assists in four games on the Bemidji State University blueline this season.
Willie Desjardins will serve as Canada’s head coach at the Karjala Cup and at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
The Karjala Cup begins on Nov. 8, with Canada facing Switzerland.