Perseverance and determination: Sean Venedam’s incredible comeback
Growing up in Valley East, Ontario, Sean Venedam was no stranger to shooting pucks in his backyard. It was something that came natural to him. Every day, without fail, he would practice hundreds of repetitions.
So later in his career, when he joined the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL as a rookie in 1993-94, he was pleasantly surprised by how Mike Yeo, one of his first roommates, stayed on the ice every day after practice to work on his shot.
Yeo scored 34 goals in 65 games that season, 14 more than the last three seasons combined, proving his post-practice habits were paying off.
“He would shoot puck after puck after puck,” Venedam recently recalled. “I thought if this is what it takes, this is what I have to do. I remember from the time I got there I just kept shooting pucks.”
By his second full season with the Sudbury Wolves, 1995-96, Venedam scored 47 goals and added 40 assists. The former Wolves captain credits his success to both his goal-scoring prowess fortified with years of practice, and to encouragement from coach Glenn Merkosky.
“He told me that if I wanted to score goals in this league I had to shoot the puck and not pass up any good opportunities,” Venedam remembered. He would follow that sage advice at every level of his career.
After graduating to the professional ranks in 1997, Venedam continued to find the back of the net. Over the course of pro career that spanned nearly ten years in the East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League, the Valley East native scored 258 goals.
While scoring came natural to him, skating was a different story. Like most hockey players from Northern Ontario, Venedam had been skating since he was a toddler, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t the strongest part of his game. He spent decades on the ice honing his skills so that skating became an inherent part of him and didn’t limit his effectiveness as a player.
All that changed in 2008. While playing with the Bakersfield Condors of the East Coast Hockey League, Venedam shattered the tibia and fibula in his right leg. Following the surgery to repair the broken bones, Venedam was assured he would make a full recovery and be back on the ice within six months.
Things, however, didn’t go as planned.
“Shortly after surgery that’s when I had some complications and things went a little sideways,” Venedam said.
Suddenly, a return to hockey was the furthest thing on his mind. For the next three-and-a-half years, Venedam was on crutches, unable walk on his own.
“Unless you’ve gone through something like that, people don’t understand the magnitude of it,” Venedam reflected. “There are so many things you can’t do. The simple task of going to the store to get groceries. You can’t do it. There’s no way to carry the groceries or push the cart. I’d put a backpack on and do it that way.”
During that time, Venedam spent hours in physiotherapy sessions and hyperbaric chambers in an effort to repair the severe nerve damage he sustained. The recovery process, however, was exacerbated by infections and more broken bones.
Just when it seemed as though his leg was healing, he would fracture it again. His life was just a revolving door of doctor’s offices and operating rooms. He endured procedure after procedure, including one to lengthen his leg after years of bone deterioration.
“They put a halo on your leg and you have to turn an Allen wrench a couple times a day so that the bone separates itself and new bone grows in to get that length back,” Venedam said.
Following years of surgeries and rehabilitation, Venedam finally reached his breaking point. Not long after getting his hardware removed, he remembers walking through a Home Depot in Ottawa. When he bent down to pick up an item, he heard a cracking sound. “It sounded like a tree branch snapped. I knew right away I had broken it again,” he stated.
After arriving in the hospital, Venedam called his orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Michael McKee, who was based out St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “They actually called him out surgery so he could take this phone call,” Venedam explained. “I said ‘Mike, I broke my leg again.’ He went off with a few expletives.”
As Venedam explained they were prepping him for surgery, Dr. McKee interrupted him. The expert surgeon told him he wanted to see him right away and asked how quickly he could get to St. Mike’s. With no hesitation, Venedam was on his way.
After arriving a few hours later, a difficult conversation followed.
“At that point, amputation had always been brought up to me in the past that it might be an option, but obviously you want to exhaust all options before going down that road,” Venedam said. Dr. McKee then explained how amputation might be the only way to get Venedam back on his feet again.
While Venedam pondered the life-changing decision, at the advice of his doctor, he reached out to a number of people who had undergone similar procedures. Some of the guys he spoke to were members of the Canadian national standing amputee hockey team, including the team’s captain, Donny Wade.
As Venedam explained his story, Wade told him they could really use him the at the International Standing Amputee Ice Hockey world championship in Finland the next year. Venedam quickly reminded the captain that he still had both his legs. The two had a quick chuckle and then Wade noted that, even if he had the procedure soon, Venedam was still realistically a couple years away from being ready to compete again.
Venedam, however, was determined to find a new normal and developed a new goal to represent his country in Finland the following year. After much soul-searching, and with a clear goal in mind, Venedam called his surgeon and confirmed that he was finally ready to have the life-changing procedure.
Following the amputation of his right leg below the knee, Venedam began the recovery process and, ultimately, the next chapter in his life. While it didn’t take him too long to get back onto his feet and into the grocery store, skating was another matter.
“It was one of the most frustrating things I had to do,” Venedam described. “I was literally hanging onto the boards. It was almost like I was starting from scratch. It took me at least a good 10 sessions to figure out how. You have to really manipulate the prosthetic and find different angles to use.”
While Venedam learned how to skate all over again, he sought advice from some of the members of the standing amputee team on how to improve his positioning on the ice. They reminded him that they had been skating like that their entire lives. Many of those players had lost limbs when they were children. Venedam, on the other hand, was 35 years old and using a prosthetic for the first time.
Venedam kept at it, supplementing his regular ice time during the winter with daily sessions on the outdoor rink, working his angles and getting comfortable with his new stride.
All of Venedam’s hard work paid off when he improbably made the national team and was able to compete at the world championship only a year after his amputation. Although his skating still needed work, that 47-goal season with the Wolves sure came in handy.
“All I had to do was shoot the puck,” Venedam explained. “I had guys who could skate on my line and all I had to do was get open. They’d tell me once we got into the offensive zone to just find a spot and we’ll get you the puck and it worked out.”
Boasting Venedam’s propensity for lighting the lamp, Team Canada went on to win the country’s sixth straight world championship. It was an experience that Venedam and his teammates will cherish forever.
“One of the closest groups I ever played with because we were all in the same boat,” he fondly recalled. “Especially when you’re representing your country. Anytime you can represent your country and put a jersey on over your head and have that logo on your chest is incredible.”
Following Canada’s victory in 2012, there hasn’t been a world championship since. Venedam and his teammates were hoping the tournament would resume this year, but it never came to fruition.
Venedam explained that even in a hockey-crazed country like Canada, it’s difficult to keep the standing amputee programs going because they receive little to no support.
“We have no support from Hockey Canada. The program is self-funded,” he lamented. “It’s difficult to ice a team and get guys across the country. Everybody’s got to foot the bill themselves or find sponsorship money. It’s not always easy.”
Venedam is cautiously optimistic that the national team could compete again in the future and he continues to work on his game so he is prepared, should the opportunity arise. Despite having another surgery on his leg this past June, Venedam has already been on the ice more times this year than last.
“Hanging out with the guys is probably the thing I missed the most last year,” Venedam explained.
For the past four years, he’s been playing with a group of guys made up of Wolves, junior and collegiate hockey alumni. Although Venedam’s life has changed dramatically following his harrowing ordeal and lengthy recovery process, one thing that has remained constant is his unshakeable love for the game.
When he’s not on the ice, Sean lives in Barrie with his family and operates 4Hundred Source for Sports.