Bemidji State's Zach Whitecloud drawing big NHL interest
GRAND FORKS—Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman and Rob Blake hovered outside the Bemidji State locker room after a game against Bowling Green last month.
The two NHL legends were there on business.
They are the general managers of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Los Angeles Kings—and they wanted to have a word with Bemidji State sophomore defenseman Zach Whitecloud.
They weren't alone that night.
And they haven't been alone this season.
Whitecloud has become one of college hockey's hottest undrafted free agents with scouts flocking to watch the 6-foot-2, 203-pound right-handed shooting blue liner. Front offices have been working to build rapports with him, hoping he may sign with their team when his college career is over.
The attention got so heavy last month that Whitecloud and Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore had to set parameters for NHL teams on when and where they can contact Whitecloud.
Why are so many NHL teams eager to sign the Brandon, Man., native?
Right-handed shooting defensemen with Whitecloud's size and type of game are hard to find.
"He's got a good, balanced skillset," Serratore said. "He has good depth to his game, good size, good puck skills, shoots the puck extremely well, good defender. Zach Whitecloud's biggest strength is probably that he has no deficiencies.
"If you want to sit there and analyze every shift, he's doing something different every shift. That, to me, is a sign of a pretty good defenseman."
Hockey Canada selected Whitecloud to play in a European tournament in November and he was considered for the Canadian Olympic Team, too.
All of the attention—including meeting Yzerman and Blake—has been a bit surreal for Whitecloud, who was an overlooked prospect from the Manitoba Junior Hockey League just two years ago.
"Seeing those guys face-to-face is something I never had visions of playing junior hockey or I never thought about," Whitecloud said. "To meet some guys like that, to look in their eye and shake their hand is overwhelming in a sense. You've kind of got to re-check yourself after you're done talking and ask yourself, 'Did that just happen?'
"But, honestly, I leave most of that stuff up to my advisor. He works with my coach to keep things under wraps, and honestly, I try to keep things quiet. I'm a team-first guy. I'm grateful for the opportunities to meet with different teams, but at the end of the day, this entire season is devoted to being a Beaver. It's the only thing I'm worried about. Whatever happens with the other stuff, I'll leave it to fate to decide. I'll let the noise stand on the outside and I'll focus on doing everything I can to help produce for my teammates, coaches, the fans and the alumni."
Whitecloud has produced plenty for the Beavers, who enter this weekend's home-and-home series against the University of North Dakota (7:07 Friday in Bemidji's Sanford Center, 7:07 p.m. Saturday in Ralph Engelstad Arena) on a nine-game unbeaten streak—Bemidji State's longest in more than a decade.
Whitecloud is on a four-game point streak and has scored goals in three of those games. Two of them have been game-winners.
Perhaps the best illustration of how important Whitecloud is to Bemidji State's defensive corps came when he was in Europe playing for Team Canada in November. The Beavers gave up 13 goals in a two-game series against Minnesota State-Mankato and got swept.
With Whitecloud in the lineup this season, the Beavers are allowing two goals per game. Without him, they're giving up 6.5.
Landing at BSU
As a 19-year-old playing for Virden in the MJHL, Whitecloud began attracting attention.
He had an option to play for his hometown Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League—a Canadian major junior league—but he would have had to give up his college eligibility to do so.
He figured he would only have a year or two with Brandon and only two or three years of school would be paid for by the organization. He analyzed their depth chart and decided college would be the best route.
A few schools were talking to Whitecloud, but Bemidji State was the first to offer.
"We recruit the MJHL pretty hard," Serratore said. "We watched him and liked him. It was pretty simple. We did our job up there and we liked Zach. He's obviously emerged as one of the top free agents in the country and he's a heck of a defenseman. The MJHL has been good to Bemidji State over the years. We know that league pretty good. We were fortunate enough to get him."
Attention from NHL teams began building at the end of last season. Two teams offered him spots at their summer development camp.
But it ramped up significantly this season.
Another top prospect
This is not new for Bemidji State.
In 2011, NHL teams competed fiercely for Beavers forward Matt Read, also an undrafted free agent, who ended up signing with the Philadelphia Flyers. Read is still with the Flyers organization.
"I think it has gotten crazier since Matt Read signed," Serratore said. "No question, from a free-agent standpoint, teams are trying to recruit these players just like a college team does. It's pretty hectic out there. There are a lot of moving parts to all of this stuff. But at the end of the day, we still have to worry about our team."
That's what Whitecloud says is his focus.
It's not lost on him that, while being pursued by NHL teams, Read was able to lead Bemidji State to an NCAA Frozen Four.
"At the end of the day, I'm never going to compare myself to Matt Read," Whitecloud said. "The guy is a legend in NCAA hockey. He was the captain here for a couple of years. He did some amazing things that not too many people will triumph over. He's a guy all of Beaver hockey can look up to.
"We have talked about Reader's situation and how he handled it and I'm going to take the same approach that Reader took: I'm going to be a student first, a Beaver first, and worry about our team. The other stuff isn't a priority. It will work itself out. I like to enjoy my time with my teammates and live in the moment."
UND vs. Bemidji State
• When: 7:07 Friday; 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Sanford Center, Bemidji on Friday; Ralph Engelstad Arena on Saturday.
• TV: Midco Sports Network (GF Ch. 27/622 HD) on Saturday only.
• Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).
• Records: UND 11-6-5; Bemidji State 11-6-5.