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Bemidji State freshman defenseman Whitecloud embraces Native heritage

Bemidji State freshman defenseman Zach Whitecloud, a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Canada, controls the puck during a game against St. Cloud State University on Jan. 27, as part of the North Star Cup Tournament held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Maggi Stivers / Forum News Service

BEMIDJI, Minn. — When Zach Whitecloud was going through his college commitment process, he wasn't aware of the Bemidji area's large Native American population or influence.

The 6-foot-3 freshman defensemen did know about the hockey at Bemidji State, though.

"Just the history around it. There's no other team in the league that has as big of a history as BSU," he said, adding he had known his current teammates Justin Baudry and Brendan Harms from playing youth hockey in Manitoba. "And I knew they had tremendous coaching, tremendous players and they prided themselves on being team-first."

Obviously, it didn't take Whitecloud much to be sold on BSU. But when he started to do more research on BSU and northern Minnesota in general, he realized he'd fit right in.

"The northern Minnesota region is highly populated with indigenous peoples, and to be playing at a school that only has one aboriginal person on its team is pretty cool and pretty special," said Whitecloud, who is a member of the Dakota Band of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located in western Manitoba. "It's nice to represent people from back home, but also communicate with the (native) community here."

BSU is hosting Native Nations Night on Friday, Feb. 3, at the Sanford Center, honoring the native peoples and heritage of the Bemidji region. Whitecloud, currently the only Native American (or First Nations, to use the Canadian term) playing for the Beaver hockey team, is glad to participate.

"Now that I know that our surrounding community is filled with a lot of people from a similar situation as I am, it's nice to be able to come into a situation where I can reach out and communicate with those people, and lend a helping hand every once in awhile," he said.

Whitecloud grew up in Brandon, Man., about 30 miles east of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Reserve (as they refer to reservations in Canada). His parents, Tim Whitecloud and Donna Cullen, kept him involved with tribal activities despite not living on the reservation.

"I was lucky enough that we were only 25 minutes away, so I was able to go out there every week and keep in touch with the traditions and the way of life," he said.

His parents also allowed him to play hockey. He was on skates at an early age.

"My dad put me on skates at two, and I never really looked back," he said. "From a First Nations perspective, I know a lot of kids who don't get their first pair of skates until they're 18, 19 and start working their first jobs. I was very lucky in that perspective, to be able to play the game I love and do it for as long as I have."

Whitecloud played for numerous youth and minor hockey teams around Brandon before landing with the Virden Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

Virden is about 45 minutes from Brandon, and just 15 minutes from the reservation. Staying close to the reservation during his junior career was important to him, Whitecloud said.

Virden is also where he connected with BSU and former assistant coach Ted Belisle.

"(Belisle) being a fellow aboriginal member himself, I kind of connected in a big way there and he was a great person to me, someone I trusted," Whitecloud said. "That's a big part of the recruiting process, finding someone you can trust and a team you can trust. He never fed me any lies, and he was always straight-up with me about where their plan was for me and what they thought about me and my skill level was at. So I owe a lot to him for bringing me in here."

Finding collegiate success

Whitecloud was the top scoring defender for the Oil Capitals last season, scoring 40 points in 59 games.

As his freshman year winds down, Whitecloud might not be scoring at the same pace he was in junior hockey (just 10 points in 30 games), but he's been doing everything else a coaching staff could ask of a young defenseman.

He scored BSU's only goal at last weekend's North Star Cup, potting his second of the season in last Friday's 2-1 loss to St. Cloud State University.

Whitecloud's strong two-way play, and his ability to read the game, has made him one of BSU head coach Tom Serratore's most trusted blueliners. He's suited up in all 30 games this season — the only freshman to do so — and plays in nearly every important situation.

"He's mature beyond his years as a player," Serratore said. "We look for Zach to play a lot of really important minutes, whether it's on the penalty kill or on the power play, whether it's the last minute of a game, whether it's an important faceoff. We have a lot of trust in Zach, he's just a really well-rounded hockey player."

Whitecloud said his love of studying the game of hockey in all forms has helped him become a better player in just seven months on campus at BSU.

"Part of the big thing coming in here as a first-year guy, I believe, is that you can't be afraid to make mistakes," he said. "Once you have that tendency to make mistakes, and you're scared to make mistakes, you're not going to be yourself as a hockey player. You have to make sure you work your hardest so you know your coaches can trust you and put you in different situations."

That comes with work ethic and wanting to be a learner of the game, Whitecloud added.

This season Whitecloud has played primarily alongside Baudry, a sophomore and fellow Manitoban. The two have known each other for a long time, and it shows in their consistent two-way defending.

"Juice and I break pucks out really well," Whitecloud said. "We have good speed back there, and good puck movement. Just being a unit that can go out there and get things done, that's a big thing for us. We're both good two-way players."

In addition to hosting Native Nations Night on Friday, the first-place Beavers are hosting second-place Michigan Tech in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series that will be doubly-special for Whitecloud.

"It's going to be an awesome weekend for the players, for the fans and for the town of Bemidji. The series speaks for itself," he said. "It's for the league championship. I'm just shaking in my chair thinking about it. There's no words to describe it. I can feel it in my body."