Two First Nations players will be going head-to-head Saturday night for game one of the Stanley Cup finals in Las Vegas.
Blueliners Zack Whitecloud and Brandon Montour are both hoping to bring the Stanley Cup back to their home communities.
Whitecloud, in his 5th year with the Las Vegas Golden Knights, is the first Indigenous NHL player to come from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, a community of around 2,500 people near Brandon, Man.
The 26-year-old defenceman began his NHL career as a free agent with the Golden Knights in March 2018 after playing for Bemidji State University in Minnesota.
“He was not only a leader on the team, but a leader in our community,” says Tom Serratore, Whitecloud’s former coach at Bemidji State. “Zach plays hard, practices hard, and just embraces it, he’s an unbelievable guy.”
Whitecloud has 1 goal and 4 assists in the 2022-23 playoffs.
“He was only with us for two years and he was that good where he could move on, just like Brandon Montour wasn’t at UMass long, these guys are special players, and more importantly, they’re special people,” Serratore told APTN News.
Serratore had also tried to recruit Montour, but he went on to play one season at UMass Amherst before becoming the highest NHL draft pick in their school programs history.
Montour, a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, spent three seasons playing for the Ducks before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres, then joining the Panthers in April 2021.
He has 6 goals and 3 assists so far in these playoffs.
Panthers coach Paul Maurice has been using Montour in key situations throughout the playoffs.
This is the second time in the Panther’s history that they’re playing in the Stanley Cup championship, the first was against the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, two years after Montour was born.
“We are so proud of everything Brandon has accomplished,” says Six Nations Chief Mark B. Hill in a media release. “He is a fantastic individual on and off the ice. He represents Six Nations of the Grand River with pride.”
In support of Montour, Six Nations is tying red bows and placing mini jersey decals around the community and will be hosting a community-wide Stanley Cup viewing party.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our community to gather and support one of our own, as he pursues the most prestigious prize in all of hockey,” says Hill.
One of the jersey-shaped Brandon Montour lawn signs Six Nations is displaying around the community. Photo: Mark B. Hill
Clarence Iron, from Canoe Lake Cree Nation in northern Sask., a commentator for Hockey Night in Cree on APTN, hopes the championship series goes to overtime in game seven so he can watch Montour and Whitecloud play as “long as possible.”
He says he’s cheering for both players.
“This is going to be a real good showdown, the only time two Indigenous players met in the finals was way back in the 1900s,” says Iron. “You know, these players made it in the NHL and are playing for the Cup now.”
“Our youth are going to see and will be thinking ‘We want to be there one day,’ seeing this, nothing is impossible.”
For Darrell Stranger, host of the APTN News’ Sports with Stranger, seeing Montour and Whitecloud play in the finals brings hope to communities.
“Indigenous representation on the biggest sporting stage gives hope for everybody, and for kids playing hockey in their communities. It’s just such an empowering thing to see, in a landscape where there aren’t a lot of us,” he says.
While playoff season can be unpredictable, one certainty is that an Indigenous player and their home nation will be celebrating a cup championship.
The best-of-seven Stanley Cup final begins Saturday, June 3 in Vegas with the Golden Knights hosting the first two games, then the Panthers hosting games 3 and 4 on June 8 and 10.