FORT WAYNE – Sean Venedam wanted to walk the first day he had his new leg. Everyone, even his wife, Jenny, believed he was setting himself up for disappointment.
But Venedam did walk that day in August. And he ran four weeks later, skated four weeks after that and surfed just last week.
Now he’s among the final players vying for a spot on Canada’s national hockey team.
Not bad for a 35-year-old guy who had his right leg amputated six inches below the knee, a procedure he opted to have after a hellacious 3 1/2 years, caused by an injury suffered on the ice.
Venedam starred with the Komets from 2002 to 2005, scoring 66 goals and 189 points in 217 games, including a masterful 2004-05 season of 39 goals and 85 points in 78 games and the nod as the UHL’s top defensive forward.
He had already captained the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl to an ECHL title, and he was captain Colin Chaulk’s alternate on the Komets’ 2003 UHL championship team.
Venedam had hoped to coach in Bakersfield, Calif., where he played the final three seasons of his career.
He was one of the best leaders I’ve ever been with, Chaulk said. He had a calming effect. And when he talked, players listened. He captured the room when he addressed us. I was more intense, more of a snap case, and we worked really well together. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for what he brought to the locker room.
Venedam was also tough, despite his 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame. He was difficult to knock off the puck. He played with a foot growth so grotesque, they had to cut a hole in his boot and people joked he had a sixth toe. Plus, colitis caused fatigue and made his diet difficult.
But no one was tough enough to endure the hit from Utah’s James Sanford, who missed on a check and caught the back of Venedam’s leg in 2008.
It happened right in front of their bench, Venedam said from his Ottawa home. Usually when you get hit there, they chirp at you a bit, but no one said anything.
Venedam tried to crawl to the bench before looking down and realizing he had shattered his tibia and fibula.
When I broke my leg initially, I knew fairly soon I wasn’t going to play again, Venedam said. And it’s a tough transition. You want to go out on your own terms. That was tough. But I still follow hockey. I still follow most of the teams that I played for. I watch a lot of NHL hockey.
For too long, Venedam had nothing to do but sit around. There were eight surgeries, insertion and removal of internal hardware, usage of an external fixator, infection and compartment syndrome, a painful condition in which pressure in the muscles builds too high.
It was to the point where I couldn’t do anything for 3 1/2 years, said Venedam, who spent more than two years on crutches or with a cane. I couldn’t walk two city blocks without severe pain. Going to get groceries was awful.
And the things in his leg that didn’t hurt had no feeling at all, as illustrated by a March 2011 trip to Home Depot, where he heard what sounded like the snapping of a tree branch.
I just started to pour sweat without knowing my leg was broken again, said Venedam, who decided not long afterward that he didn’t want to waste any more of his life and opted for amputation, which was performed last June.
Today, Venedam wears the same skates he wore in Bakersfield and uses one of his three prostheses for hockey. And he skates circles around almost everyone.
I’ll be on the ice skating, then get in the locker room and get undressed and guys will see my leg and be like, You have one leg? Are you serious?’
He’s among the final 27 players vying for 19 spots on the national team. Even he didn’t think he’d be able to progress so quickly in the non-checking sport.
The first tryout I went to, it was the first time I’d put gear on in four years. I didn’t know what to expect, Venedam said. The first couple of drills, I thought I’d skate (as a defenseman), but then I realized I can’t skate backwards. So they were immediately telling me, Yeah, no, you’re playing forward.’
Venedam has gotten a real-estate license, been certified as a personal trainer and he’s in the process of moving to Sudbury, Ontario, to run a sporting goods store.
When Chaulk needs to be uplifted, he reads a letter sent to him not long ago by Venedam, and it’s one of the few things that gets him emotional. Venedam’s story has inspired even his closest friends.
There’s a time where you never think it’s going to end, Venedam said. It was like I was swimming in circles. It’s funny to say that, because it would have been with one leg. But eventually, it starts to weigh on you mentally.
Once my leg was actually amputated, I thought, I’ve got work to do.’