While growing up in Brandon, Zach Whitecloud would go to a couple of University of North Dakota games every year and dream of playing NCAA Division I hockey. Now dream is about to become a reality.
The 19-year-old Virden Oil Capitals defenceman has committed to join the Bemidji State University Beavers, although he won’t find out until April whether it will be for the 2016-17 season or the 2017-18 campaign.
That doesn’t matter for Whitecloud, who’s just happy he has found a college team to play for.
“It’s extremely exciting for my parents and me,” said Whitecloud. “We’re all really excited that we have a school that has confidence in my game and has confidence in me as a person too. It’s a really exciting procedure as well. Now it’s just time to get back to work and keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past year and this year as well.”
The six-foot-one, 200-pound Brandonite had scouted a few different schools, but the work and dedication of the Beavers coaching staff impressed Whitecloud. He liked that they showed up to his Manitoba Junior Hockey League games and walked him through the process of what it takes to play Division I hockey as well as the commitment process.
He had a little extra help as well. Whitecloud’s mom is friends with the mother of Glenboro’s Brittni Mowat, who’s a goalie with the Bemidji State women’s hockey team. Whitecloud got in touch with Mowat and the five-foot-seven junior, who has a 1.38 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage this season, sold him on the campus.
“Talking to her, she really made my decision a lot easier because she highlighted some of the things that Bemidji has to offer and it sounded like a place I would love to go,” said Whitecloud.
“Just her highlighting things such as the school size and what the program has to offer and the facilities and schooling. When she kind of highlighted that stuff it made my eyes go wide because I thought to myself that this is a school I would love to go to and be a part of.”
Melissa Hunt of Hartney and Manitou’s Madison Hutchinson are also on Bemidji’s female hockey team.
Brendan Harms of Steinbach and Justin Baudry of LaBroquerie, both of whom played in the MJHL, are on the men’s team. The men currently have a 5-8-2 record in Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference play and are 6-9-3 overall.
Whitecloud, who plans to study business, is having a solid season with the Oil Capitals. He’s currently on the team’s second power-play unit and also kills off penalties. Virden’s power-play unit is third in the league at 25.73 per cent and it kills off 84.40 per cent of penalties, also third-best in the MJHL.
Although he’s shown he can defend, Whitecloud has added a little more offence to his game, scoring two goals and setting up 25 others. His 27 points in 36 games has him sixth on the Oil Caps in scoring and as the highest-scoring defenceman. Whitecloud had 10 points in 57 games last season.
Whitecloud credits his dedication to hard work for the reason he’s improved so much this season and will bring the same work ethic with him to Minnesota.
“My coaches and parents know that when they highlight things (to improve on) that I’m going to go to work on them. I don’t take those lightly. Those are things that I focus on,” he said. “If you tell me my shot needs to be better, I’m going to be out there after practice working on slapshots, wrist shots, different kind of plays and different movements.
“I enjoy getting better. It’s one of the things I love going to the rink to do. I’m not there to just be there and say let’s get this practice over with. I’m there for my teammates, I’m there for my coaches cause they rely on me game in and game out so I have to be at my best and develop not only for myself but for the team as well. The team comes first.”
Whitecloud, who also golfs and was the runner-up in last year’s Tamarack’s junior men’s event, is happy to have his mind made up about what school to go to so he can focus on helping the Oil Capitals improve on their 24-12-0 mark and climb above fourth place in the standings, where they currently sit.
After that, he’ll figure out when he’ll go to Bemidji, but he’s not worried about which season he’ll join the Beavers.
“Whether it’s next year or the year after that, I’m still really looking forward to being a Beaver, and believe me, I’ll be working my hardest to play hockey for Bemidji State University,” he said.
» Twitter: @jasterch
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 5, 2016