“Blake [Spiller] gave me a shot and took a chance on me. He is a big reason why I was able to play in college.” That is from former Terrier defenceman Clay Van Diest when talking about how thankful he was for his time in Portage.
Van Diest came to Portage at the start of the 2012-13 season as an 18-year-old and found himself a regular spot on the blue line. The Helena, Montana product put up 11 points in 51 games. He followed that up with 29 points in 60 games at 19. He had some great times while in Portage.
“I was super close with Geno. One year I went with him to pick up the ice tub. Those are some of the special memories for me away from the rink. Getting to spend time with him are some of the memories I will keep for sure. Getting to live with Talor Joseph was also a blast for me.”
“Hockey wise, game 7’s vs Steinbach were a blast to play in front of huge crowds, unfortunately we didn’t get the results we wanted. I’ll also remember my first fight which was hilarious. I had never been in one before and I fought the captain of Waywayseecappo. The next day two Terrier defenceman were traded and I stayed with the team. I must have done something right.”
In his final year of junior, with the Terriers getting set to host the RBC Cup, Van Diest was traded to the Virden Oil Capitals after 20 games in exchange for 19-year-old blueliner Kevin Pochuk.
“There are always lessons you learn in life. It was humbling getting traded and tough watching Portage win that year. I was able to win a championship in college and got to play on some very successful teams. I had some great times in Virden which helped me get to the college level as well. I got to be d-partners with Zac Whitecloud who is now in the NHL. It’s also helped me be a better coach. Having gone through some of that adversity as a player. Everything is a blessing, it was a tough moment, but looking back on it you see some of the lessons learned.”
After his time in the MJHL Van Diest had a couple of colleges interested in him. “My final decision was between Bentley (NCAA Div I) with Tanner Jago, or St. Norbert College (NCAA Div III) which is where I decided to go. I felt there was a great opportunity to win at St. Nortbert. It felt like a good fit. We were the first team to go to the national tournament 4 years in a row. We lost in the national championship my first year, frozen four my second, won in my junior year, then lost in the elite 8. We played in the most games as a class in the history of division III hockey. Going to Lake Placid where the Olympics were, getting to go to Nationals, conference championships; it was a very special time.”
Following his hockey career Van Diest has now found himself behind the bench. “I graduated from St. Norbert and was planning to keep playing, but I got injured and then turned to coaching. The year after graduation I helped with the women’s team at St. Norbert. In November I was hired as the assistant hockey coach for the men’s team at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (NCAA Div III).”
Looking back at his playing time in Portage he had plenty of positive things to say. “I think the town was a big thing for me. I was fortunate to find a landing home in Portage for an extended time. Not a lot of people get to say that. As I’m recruiting now, I see a lot of guys who play on a lot of teams. It felt like home with great billets, the church and community. I still get emails all the time from the community.”
He is taking what he learned in Portage and applying it to his own career. “One of the things I loved about Blake and Paul [Harland] is that they let us play. My rookie season, we didn’t practice the power play in structure, but we were big on being creative. He [Spiller] was hard on us in the best way. Blake did a great job allowing us to play to our strengths and not have us be nervous on every play. Now with my team I want to give them some structure but I also want them to have fun and play fast.”