By Derek Holtom
MJHL Web Correspondent
When NHL Hall of Famers such as Steve Yzerman and Rob Blake are coming around so often that your coach has to create some parameters for them, you know things are going well.
And things certainly are going very well for former Virden Oil Capitals’ defenceman Zach Whitecloud. Now in his second season with the NCAA Bemidji Beavers, Whitecloud is attracting attention from just about every NHL team with his continually-improving game.
According to the Grand Forks Herald, the “problem” has gotten so bad that Beavers head coach Tom Serratore has established guidelines for visiting NHL scouts and general managers who routinely attend their games and view Whitecloud as one of the top unsigned-prospects in the college ranks.
The Brandon native acknowledges the attention is a sure sign his game is headed in the right direction, while also being mindful to remain focused on the here and now.
“For any hockey player, it’s something that’s exciting,” said Whitecloud on the attention he has earned from NHL teams. “Not everyone is lucky enough to get the attention that some players get, and it’s been an ongoing process – it’s something I’m learning to deal with, making sure I don’t look to far into the future.”
And while Whitecloud strives to remain ‘humble’, he is also cognizant that professional hockey is a business.
“Part of it is looking at the rosters of different teams, and doing my due process,” he said. “But in broad terms, it’s fun to have teams taking a serious look at you. That said, you have to balance things out.”
“The team comes first, and that means I have to look after the right things at the right time,” he continued. “But the other side of the coin is I have to look a bit to the future, and that means being aware of certain teams and their level of interest, but it’s most important to keep in mind the task at hand, and that’s playing for the Bemidji State Beavers and being a team guy first.”
Whitecloud’s stock rose even higher in November when Hockey Canada selected him to take part in the Karjala Cup, a pre-Olympic tournament for men’s hockey. With the NHL sitting out the South Korea Games this year, Canada turned to other professional leagues in Europe and Russia, the college ranks, and even major junior teams to fill out this year’s squad. And while he wasn’t ultimately selected to the men’s Olympic team, Whitecloud came away from his international tournament changed for the better.
“I could go on and on about that experience,” said Whitecloud, who picked up an assist in his two games with Team Canada. “It meant the world to me that I got the call to go play for my country at the Karjala Cup. To get a chance to wear the Canadian jersey – not many people can say they’ve had that opportunity before.”
“The things I learned over there are beyond explainable,” he added. “The list goes on and on about what I learned. And getting to visit Europe was a big plus. Getting to come back to my team with that experience really helped with my development, and it’s something I’ll be able to look back on for the rest of my life.”
Whitecloud has truly come a long way since his days of riding the bus in Manitoba, developing his skills in his two seasons with the Oil Capitals before accepting a scholarship to play at Bemidji. Three and a half years later, he’s gone from being a rookie with the Oil Capitals to having meetings with some of hockey’s greatest players.
“If you were to ask any person two or three years ago if I would be in this situation, they probably would have said no,” he said. “It’s been a quick transition, the path I’ve been on, and it’s been accelerated.”
“You have to make sure you enjoy every step of the way and that you don’t miss any of the development process,” he added. “When I started playing as a young kid for the Virden Oil Capitals, that first season flew by. And I thought the second season couldn’t go by as quick, but it went quicker. You don’t take as much time as an athlete to appreciate the moment, and that’s something I’m trying to do now.”
As the Beavers jostle for positioning within the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Whitecloud knows a decision lies in front of him – remain at school until graduation, or make the move to professional hockey. Yet whatever route he takes, Whitecloud remains firmly committed to getting an education – even if it might be delayed.
“For any person who has sat in my shoes, it’s a very difficult decision,” he said. “What’s important to you – do you want to be an athlete who cut school short, and take the chance on pro hockey and start early, or do you want to finish that degree first? “
“For me, if I do want to stay for four years and get my degree, that’s always great to have under your belt,” he added. “But on the other hand there are players who have cut their education short. But I know even if I do take that path, I’m more than capable of going back to school and finishing my degree. “
“I told myself and my mom that no matter what, I was going to finish my degree.”