Van Diest touches down on Terrier blue line
Portage Terriers defenceman Clay Van Diest skates during practice at the PCU Centre on Tuesday. (Dan Falloon/The Herald-Leader)
Clay Van Diest grew up more likely to lead drives than kill penalties.
Yet the Helena, Mont. product is patrolling the Portage Terriers blue line this season.
Van Diest, 18, grew up in a gridiron-based family as father Mike has helmed the Carroll College Fighting Saints football team to six National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championships in 13 years on the job. The elder Van Diest has an overall record of 162-24 as Carroll's coach.
As well, brother Shane, 25, played football at Carroll and is now working as a graduate assistant at the University of South Dakota.
Van Diest grew up playing both sports, and was successful in both. On the ice, Van Diest was named to Montana's state team at age 12, and played at the national tournament twice, winning a championship at the Tier II level.
"There was lots of traveling to try to get competition. Every weekend, we were driving Salt Lake (City) or Denver," said Van Diest, who is scoreless in seven games this season. "There's not a lot of hockey in Montana."
Van Diest knew he would have to leave home to grow as a player, and he did so at the age of 16, joining the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame Hounds in Wilcox, Sask. The prep school played a role in developing current NHL stars Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Jordan Eberle, among others.
Van Diest described feeling at a crossroads between hockey and football, and with the opportunity to join Notre Dame, he diverged from the family business.
"I decided I probably wasn't good enough to play football for him (Mike), and I was s little bit better at hockey," said Van Diest. "I decided I should give hockey a try, and I moved on up to Canada."
Van Diest said his parents were supportive of the move, though his mother Heidi was a little hesitant to let her son move nearly 900 km away.
"(For) my mom, it was definitely hard having a son leave home at 16," said Van Diest. "They both support me, and my mom's actually coming up this weekend, driving 30 hours to come watch the game (Friday night against Swan Valley).
"My dad, when he gets bye weeks from football, he comes up, so I get pretty good support from there."
Part of the school's mantra is to create well-rounded athletes, and Van Diest threw himself into that philosophy, participating in baseball, lacrosse, and, yes, football, serving as the Hounds' pivot.
Van Diest wasn't expecting on tossing the pigskin in Hound colours, but his background caught up to him.
"When some of the older kids found out my dad was a football coach, they said 'You're American, you play football, we need all the help we can get'," said Van Diest. "I was planning on just playing hockey, but I'm definitely glad some of the older guys found me and talked me into it.
"I ended up having two of the best years of my life playing football for them."
The Hounds made it all the way to the city final in 2011, with Van Diest earning team MVP honours in the process.
Van Diest is in his first season with the Terriers, helping to reconstruct a blue line that lost stalwarts Cody Kostecki, Yvan Pattyn and Adam Robson in the offseason.
He's been relied on as a leader in recent years, as he was the AAA Midget Hounds' captain last year, while he also fulfilled the intrinsic duties expected of a quarterback. Being a new voice in the room, Van Diest has been careful not to step on any toes, though he acknowledges his inner pivot sometimes takes over.
"Football's more of a rah-rah type of sport, so I think I bring a little more of that with me — probably a little more cheer and rah-rah than most hockey guys are used to," said Van Diest. "It's hard being a rookie. There's already a lot of leadership on the team, a lot of older guys that do a great job with that.
"Any time I can try to get the guys fired up, I'll do everything I can."
The 6-foot-1, 190-lb defenceman said his experiences playing hockey in the U.S. and Canada have differed, but he enjoys the style of play in north of the 49th parallel.
"It's a lot more physical up here, but I like that game, being a bigger guy," said Van Diest. "It took a little while for me to get used to that and adapt to that, but with two years at Notre Dame, you get used to that, throwing the body around a little bit more.
"It's a fast game here in Manitoba. Junior 'A' is a big step up from anything I had back at home, so it's definitely been good competition."
The Terriers will next be in action Friday night when the Swan Valley Stampeders visit the PCU Centre at 7:30 p.m.