BEMIDJI -- Zach Whitecloud is headed to the NHL.
The Bemidji State defenseman inked a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights, as announced by the team Thursday. The 21-year-old signed a three-year, entry level contract and is expected to join the Golden Knights in Buffalo today ahead of their game against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, March 10.
“This is only the first step in a very, very long process,” Whitecloud said. “And I’m very much aware of that. You kind of enjoy the moment, and I’m giving myself a day to enjoy it. And then come tomorrow the work starts.”
The Brandon, Man., native appeared in 36 games for Bemidji State during his sophomore season in 2017-18 and recorded 18 points (4g-14a). Whitecloud posted 36 points (7g-29a) in 77 games over two seasons, finishing his BSU career by tallying three assists in last Saturday’s 5-4 loss to Michigan Tech that ended the Beavers’ season.
Whitecloud, listed at 6-1 and 196 pounds, drew plenty of attention from NHL teams, fielding visits from Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake. In the end, Whitecloud likes what Vegas provides.
“You want to go somewhere where you’re going to have opportunity, and for me, I guess it’s an advantage being a right-handed, big defenseman,” Whitecloud said. “There are a very minimal amount of guys like that in hockey nowadays. My main thing was to go somewhere where I was going to get a chance to play.”
“He's a mobile defenseman. He moves the puck real well and he's a safe player right now,” Vegas GM George McPhee told the club’s website. “We think he plays conservatively and we believe he can give us a lot more offensively. He has lots of room for growth. He's good and safe and conservative. He'll build the offensive end of his game.”
The Golden Knights are in their first season as a team and currently lead the Pacific Division with a 42-19-5 record and 89 points, the second-most in the Western Conference.
“It’s definitely exciting that the team I’ve decided on is in first place,” Whitecloud said. “They’re in a good spot going into playoffs and carrying a lot of good momentum and playing some good hockey.”
McPhee left open the possibility that Whitecloud could see playing time this season, but said he will at least benefit from learning from his teammates by practicing and training with them.
One teammate who will welcome Whitecloud to Vegas is former Beaver great Brad Hunt. The defenseman, who played for BSU from 2008-12, has recorded 17 points (3g-14a) in 38 games this season for the Golden Knights.
“I don’t know Brad incredibly well but I know him enough to connect with him through BSU hockey and everything like that,” Whitecloud said. “It’ll be good to see him and kind of pick his brain and see how he does things and learn the ropes from everyone in that organization to become a pro, and be the best pro that I can be.”
Having already fulfilled one dream this season by playing for Canada at the Karjala Cup in November when he was on Hockey Canada’s radar for the Olympics, Whitecloud is on the verge of bringing another to fruition.
“Every kid dreams of, whether it’s signing an NHL contract or playing in your first game in the NHL, I mean regardless, those are huge dreams and some that almost every little hockey player has,” Whitecloud said. “... Obviously that was the end goal but you have to be a realist at some point and realize that not everyone makes it to the NHL.”
Whitecloud didn’t attract much attention when it came time to be drafted, leaving him an undrafted free agent. Now he’s the first early departure in college hockey to sign with an NHL club this season.
Whitecloud came to Bemidji expecting to be on campus for four years, but the opportunity he was presented was too much to pass up. Still, he said he will forever cherish his time as a Beaver.
“You were told before that when you come in here, you are a Beaver for life,” Whitecloud said. “... It’s tough to leave but exciting things (are) ahead. I’m just trying to make everyone proud that helped me along the way to get to Bemidji and who here helped me get to the NHL.”