Thousands of kilometres from the Las Vegas desert landscape, members from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in southwestern Manitoba donned Vegas Golden Knights jerseys as they watched the team battle the Winnipeg Jets during the series-opener Tuesday evening.
The game was projected onto two large screens set up in the nation’s community hall. Hockey fans across the province watched in anticipation as the underdog Jets scored a 5-1 road win over the Golden Knights, but in Sioux Valley all eyes were on Las Vegas’ Zach Whitecloud.
The 26-year-old defenceman is from the Dakota community just west of Brandon, where he grew up. Sioux Valley leadership believe Whitecloud is the first person from the community to play in the National Hockey League.
“Being able to be one of a few First Nations players in the NHL is something I take a great amount of pride in, especially the path that I’ve taken to get here,” Whitecloud said Wednesday after the team’s practice.
“I wouldn’t have gotten here without the support from my home community.”
A quick search of the defenceman’s name on social media brings up posts from community members sharing their excitement and pride in seeing Whitecloud make it to a place many kids who grew up playing hockey wish for.
“There’s a lot of hype on social media. A lot of support for Zach,” said Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone. “He is a positive role model for our community members and for the younger generation. They just look up to him.”
The praise and well wishes also come from First Nations across the country — something that is not lost on Whitecloud, who spends time visiting his community and volunteering at hockey camps during the off-season.
“I take a lot of responsibility in terms of representing my culture and my people on the national stage here. Conducting myself in a way that represents everyone as best as possible,” he said.
Both of Whitecloud’s parents were active in competitive sports in their youth and as young adults. When Whitecloud was younger his family would house players from the Brandon Wheat Kings, which Tim Whitecloud said gave his a son a peek at the discipline needed to excel at professional hockey.
“He would go to the rink with the guys when they went to practice. He got to experience all that (and) it benefited him in regards to his aspirations to play at a higher level,” the senior Whitecloud said in a phone interview from Las Vegas.
Whitecloud spent three seasons playing for the Virden Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League before moving to Minnesota to play for Bemidji State University.
After going undrafted, Whitecloud signed as a free agent with the Golden Knights in March 2018 and made his NHL debut a month later. He spent the next season honing his skills with the Knights’ American Hockey League-affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
The elder Whitecloud normally considers himself a calm and collective person but his nerves were rattled as he took in the atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday.
It was first time he had ever watched his son play a live Stanley Cup playoff game.
“Deep inside I was anxious,” he said.
Add in the fact his son was playing their home province team for the first time — and it provided a perfect storm of excitement and stress.
“I would have liked to have seen the (Jets and Golden Knights) play in the second round, not the first,” Tim Whitecloud said with a chuckle.
Whitecloud is from a family of Jets fans. And his father says he still “pulls for the Jets” when they aren’t playing Vegas.
Whitecloud will have plenty of friends and family in the stands at Canada Life Centre on Saturday when the series shifts back to Winnipeg for Game 3, but he doesn’t know how many of them will be bold enough to rep Golden Knights’ black and gold jerseys in what will be a sea of white.
“I do have a Zach Whitecloud jersey but I’m not sure if I’m going to wear it yet,” Bone said with a laugh while admitting she’s not much of a hockey fan.
After spending his childhood watching the Jets, Whitecloud is well-prepared for the frenzy that awaits in Winnipeg, and he’s trying not to let it phase him.
“When you get up there it’s all business, so I’m not really focusing on who’s there and who isn’t,” he said.
“I’m focused on helping this team win and doing my job … it’s going to be a fun place to play.”
After Saturday’s game, the series — currently tied at 1-1 after the Golden Knights’ 5-2 win on Thursday — continues with Game 4 in Winnipeg on Monday night. Game 5 will be back in Las Vegas on April 27.
With files from Gregory Strong in Las Vegas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2023.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press