Manitoba First Nation cheers on hometown NHL player taking on the Jets in playoffs
Zach Whitecloud 'anxious and excited' for playoffs to begin
While most Manitobans are hoping to see the Winnipeg Jets bring home a first-round win against the Vegas Golden Knights, at least one community is tucking away their whiteout gear and cheering for the other team — for now.
Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Zach Whitecloud was born in Brandon, Man., but Sioux Valley Dakota Nation is his home.
His dad, Tim Whitecloud, is a band councillor on the First Nation and said the whole community is rallying behind him.
"He's got a large following of fans," Tim said. "I know there's even Winnipeg Jets fans that are supporting him, not necessarily Vegas, but supporting him and his quest here for the Stanley Cup."
Sioux Valley is a small community of around 2,400 people located roughly 50 kilometres west of Brandon.
Back to his backyard
Tim spoke to CBC News on his way to catch a flight to Las Vegas from North Dakota on Monday afternoon.
"I was really anticipating the matchup with the Jets here, and again, it's right in our backyard," he said. "We grew up in Manitoba and he played some tournaments in Winnipeg and a few other guys on their team originate from [here] so I think it's really exciting."
There are four Manitobans on the Golden Knights roster, including captain and Winnipegger Mark Stone, who will be playing his first game Tuesday in three months since having his second back surgery.
Zach is the first NHL player to come from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and his dad said the community is looking forward to watching the series. He said they will be staying up till 'the bitter end' no matter how late the games last.
"I know a lot of our elderly people from back home, some of them say they never used to watch hockey up until Zach made in to the NHL," he said.
"They're loyal to staying up from nine till midnight and watching the game. They say that they may need to take some after supper naps, but they all are very proud."
Tim said a group is trying to get a watch party going at the local community hall so that everyone has the opportunity to take in the game.
Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Jennifer Bone said everyone is excited in the community, especially many of the children.
"A lot of youth look up to him," he said. "Our community is pretty proud of him, you know, a community member representing us at that level."
Bone said Zach often comes back to the community in the off-season and takes time to speak at events and attend the annual powwow.
"It's always a great opportunity for our kids … they're always anxious, really excited and wanting to meet him, wanting to get photos and autographs."
The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation helped support Zach as a hockey player growing up. The council and chief at the time provided funding to help his parents cover his youth hockey fees and travel costs as part of a program that's available to all families in the community.
"It's important that we have our youth involved in those activities because it helps them to create their own confidence, to make friends. The young ones need to be able to participate in sports. We're a big supporter of that with our youth in the community."
Now Bone and the community continue to support Zach as he lives out his childhood dream.
"Community pride is what it comes down to," she said.
Speaking with reporters Sunday afternoon after practice in Las Vegas, Zach said he is looking forward to the series, especially after the team missed out on making the playoffs last year.
"Just getting anxious and excited," he said. "Now that the regular season is over it's, you know, settling in a bit more of that … we're getting down to it right away. So everyone's excited, everyone's ready to get going."
🎥 Whitecloud on playing Winnipeg: Being able to go back there and play in front of that atmosphere is going to be fun. <a href="https://t.co/eeftOqzX2b">pic.twitter.com/eeftOqzX2b</a>—@GoldenKnights
Zach said once it was determined they would be playing the Jets, his phone lit up with messages from friends back home.
"They were all pretty pumped up," he said. "Whether they're gonna, you know, be in the whiteout area outside or in the building, you know, it's where I grew up playing hockey so it's kind of cool to be able to go back there."
Zach signed a three-year entry-level contract with Vegas in 2018. He inked a six-year extension with the Golden Knights in 2021.
This season, he amassed five goals and 12 points in 59 games, and added 41 penalty minutes.