Ask Zach Whitecloud a question and the answer invariably comes back to helping his team get two points every game and/or helping the Vegas Golden Knights organization reach its goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
It's not contrived or planned. It's organic and authentic. It's who the 23-year-old Whitecloud is and it's a major reason as to why the club announced Sunday he's been signed to a two-year contract extension with an average annual value of $725,000.
"It's exciting. I'm happy to tell my parents and my friends," Whitecloud said in a phone interview. "I'll be excited with it for a little bit but there's obviously more work to be done. The talking points I shared with my parents when I left college to sign with the Golden Knights were about finding a place where I could eventually get to the NHL and then help that organization win a Stanley Cup. I wanted to go to a place where I could develop as a person and a hockey player and become a true professional and keep working toward that goal of winning the Stanley Cup. To be a contributor on a team and help them get two points every night and ultimately win a championship. When I was going through the process, I chose Vegas and its very humbling to sign an extension with them and keep working towards that ultimate goal."
Whitecloud left Bemidji State to sign with the Golden Knights in the spring of 2018. He then joined the team in Buffalo where the Golden Knights had a game with the Sabres.
Whitecloud did some media interviews and then approached this writer and asked where he could sit in the press box and if he could have a piece of paper and a pen. The then 21-year-old then proceeded to watch the game and take notes, filling both sides of the sheet of paper with his thoughts and questions.
For the next few months as the Golden Knights pushed their way to the Stanley Cup Final, Whitecloud took full advantage of his opportunity around the team. He watched and learned and used the team's facilities to work on his mind, body and game.
"Zach's a late bloomer. He didn't go to college until he was 20 years old. He played two years of junior A hockey in Manitoba so he's a little bit later, even before he began his junior career. But what Zach has done is soak up every experience that's been put in front of him," said Golden Knights General Manager Kelly McCrimmon. "The timeframe you allude to is one where he was with us for the regular season and then really committed himself to training while the team was still playing. Of course, that's the year we played until the 7th or 8th of June. For him it was really good development off the ice, and the opportunity to be around the team and learn from what was going on with his teammates. From there, as he turned pro, the biggest thing we felt was that he needed some more experience. He needed to get some reps in pro hockey and he did exactly that. He really developed well in the American Hockey League and now has shown to be ready to make that next step."
Whitecloud spent last season with the AHL's Chicago Wolves and helped his team reach the Calder Cup Final. He began this season in Chicago as well before earning a call up and proving his worth in the NHL.
"Zach has good size, he's a very good skater, he transitions the puck real well, he does a real good job of making the easy play, he communicates real well with his partner and I think when he's at the top of his game he's not a player you're going to notice a lot, but neither is there going to be chaos when he's on the ice. I think he's a really intelligent player that does a good job of defending and breaking pucks out," said McCrimmon. "Zach has shown the ability to settle in, adjust to his surroundings and play a very efficient, quiet game. That's really what the makeup of Zach's game looks like and that's what he's continued to work on and continued to perfect and now he's doing at the level of an NHL players."
Joining the Golden Knights as a college free agent was one decision. Electing to extend with the club after spending two years with the organization is another.
Whitecloud says the Golden Knights not only gave him his first opportunity, but they laid out a plan for him which has led to his success.
"Obviously it doesn't happen without that first contract, the entry-level contract. When I had spoken to George (McPhee) and Kelly (McCrimmon) at the time, they laid out a plan for me that made sense for my development path. I wasn't the kid that was going to jump right into the NHL and I knew that," said Whitecloud.
"I knew that I needed some seasoning in the AHL. They had a great coach down there in Rocky Thompson. Obviously when I stepped into Chicago my first year, we had a terrific team that created a good atmosphere for developing and getting better. For all of us young guys, even some of the older guys, to be true pros and learn how to do that at that level. When I signed, I knew that I was going into a good situation there and I knew for myself, I could help myself and help the team to do their best and accomplish goals. I knew my time was coming to eventually step into the NHL. I made sure I was ready and ready to take advantage of the opportunity and now here we are in the scenario I'm in, obviously resigning. I'm extremely, again, happy and humble to be able to continue to getting better in this organization and helping them win the Stanley Cup."
Whitecloud isn't content to have made the NHL. He wants much more for the organization and wants to develop himself to contribute at a greater level. So what does he need to improve?
"I ask myself that all the time. I ask other people all the time too: What are things I can do? I think it'd be wrong of me to focus on one thing specifically as I've never done that throughout my hockey career," he said. "I've focused on rounding out myself as a good hockey player, a good person and a good community member. If I can keep doing all of those things away from the rink, the things at the rink eventually take care of themselves. The habits that I've been creating over the past five years, in college and a little bit in junior have prepared me for what I'm going through. To be able to contribute and, not only just come in, but contribute to helping the team win and get two points every night. I want to do my part, I want to execute, do my job and be a good person in the organization that people can rely on. I think if I focus on rounding out myself as a good player, person and community member, I'm starting things off on the right foot and doing the right things. To focus in on one thing would be wrong of me, but I think all of those things take care of themselves when you try to do them all the best you can."
McCrimmon has known Whitecloud since he was playing minor hockey in Brandon, Manitoba where the Golden Knights GM was working at the time. He believes the player and the organization fit each other well.
"He's very committed and he's a very good person. I think he appreciates the opportunity that the organization has given him. I think he's done everything he can to hold up his end of the bargain and improve every way possible whether that was initially working with Wil Nichol on the development side, playing under Rocky Thompson in the AHL, or the time that he's now had with the big team under Peter DeBoer and Ryan McGill," said the GM. "He wants to get better. He's clearly demonstrated to us that he'll do whatever it takes and because of that we project that he will continue to improve. We think he's only scratching the surface as far as his time as an NHL player."
Zach Whitecloud , Defenseman
Hometown: Brandon, Manitoba
Weight: 209 lbs.
- Has appeared in sixteen games for the Golden Knights this season and has tallied one assist
- Collected first NHL point, an assist, against Buffalo on Feb. 28, 2020
- Has recorded seven points (2 G, 5 A) to go with 16 penalty minutes in 35 games this season with the AHL's Chicago Wolves
- Helped lead Chicago to the Calder Cup Final during the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs and finished with 15 points (3 G, 12 A) to go with 11 penalty minutes
- Appeared in 74 games for the Wolves during the 2018-19 season and finished with 28 points (6 G, 28 A) to go with 52 penalty minutes
- Made NHL debut at the Edmonton Oilers on April 5, 2018
- Signed with the Vegas Golden Knights after finishing collegiate career on March 8, 2018
- Appeared in 36 games for Bemidji State during the 2017-18 season and recorded 18 points (4 G, 14 A).