Brandon’s Zach Whitecloud was surprised and grateful when he received a phone call telling him he was named one of Manitoba’s top aboriginal athletes.
“All I said was ‘thank you’ like 15 times,” the son of Donna Cullen and Tim Whitecloud said.
In February, Whitecloud and Justin Krantz of Roblin were named the Manitoba Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Council’s co-male athletes of the year award winners for 2014. It’s the first time there have been co-recipients for the award.
Krantz earned a silver medal in discus at the North American Indigenous Games, while Whitecloud, a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, was recognized for his community service off the ice as well as his strong play with the Brandon Midget AAA Wheat Kings and the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Virden Oil Capitals.
“You don’t go searching for that stuff,” Whitecloud said regarding winning the award. “You go out every day, work your hardest and be involved in the community.”
Recognized for his 2014 accomplishments, Whitecloud has continued to rack up achievements this year. The 18-year-old rookie defenceman recently received the Oil Capitals’ fan’s choice award and was also named most improved player. The fact that his jersey was auctioned off for a team-high $4,000 is a sign of his popularity in Virden.
Whitecloud’s success in his first MJHL season came after a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. In about five months, he lost 40 pounds in an effort to get in better shape.
“I kind of woke myself up there,” Whitecloud said. “If I didn’t put the work in over the summer and lose the weight and become a mobile defenceman, I wouldn’t succeed in this league.”
A busy offseason, including training with Dave Lewis of The Hockey Factory paid off as Whitecloud, listed at 6-foot-2, 202-pounds, earned a top four blueline role as a rookie. In 57 regular season games, Whitecloud had three goals, 10 points and 42 penalty minutes for the Oil Capitals.
“He really got himself in shape for camp It’s paid dividends for him in the role we’ve put him in,” Virden head coach Troy Leslie said, noting that Whitecloud now gets around the rink faster.
Whitecloud, who is also a standout golfer, has had an impact in Virden off the ice. He’s helped out in the community in various capacities, including Virden Minor Hockey and helping youngsters in school.
“He obviously sees himself as a role model and conducts himself that way all the time,” Leslie added.
Whitecloud sees his community work as a way of giving back to the next generation. His family billeted players for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and he recalls looking up to them.
“It’s crazy seeing all the kids – their smiles. They are stoked to see the Oil Caps.”
Last September, the MJHL recognized him as its peak performer of the month for his on and off-ice accomplishments.
“Zach epitomizes what the MJHL is all about, whether that’s community involvement, making a difference and showcasing his hockey talents,” MJHL commissioner Kim Davis said in a press release.
Proud of his heritage, Whitecloud wants to inspire aboriginal youth. He was a motivational speaker for the Dakota Ojibway CFS Christmas event and spoke at WE Day at Virden Collegiate which he has been attending Grade 12 during his time in Virden.
“I really encourage kids to go out and try different sports, try different things and do well in school.”
Born and raised in Brandon, Whitecloud played in the Sioux Valley minor hockey system and during that time, his dad would help coach him. He would eventually start playing in Brandon.
Whitecloud played high school hockey at Vincent Massey, where he will graduate from in June. He enjoyed being teammates with his friends and said it was a learning experience. He says coach Brad Twordik, a former Wheat Kings player, was influential and was one of a number of people who helped him realize the potential he had.
Whitecloud suited up for a year with the Central Plains midget AAA program and last season played for the midget AAA Wheat Kings. He greatly enjoyed his time last season playing for Ken Schneider, Tyson Ramsey, and Laverne Popple.
“Those guys helped me mature and helped me become a responsible young man. They really developed me into the hockey player I needed to be.”
This year, Whitecloud has proven he can play and succeed in the MJHL. He has enjoyed many aspects of playing for the Oil Caps, but said the best part has been “meeting a bunch of new people and learning the ropes from the older guys on the team.”