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Haitians, hockey and heart

Adopted from Haiti, Sam and Venel Campbell’s hockey stories are oh so Canadian – a frozen pond, a family connection and a pure and simple love for the game

Chris Jurewicz
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February 11, 2022
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Jeff Campbell describes the competition as constant.

Pretty much every aspect of life can be turned into a competition for Sam and Venel Campbell.

Who can tie their shoes quickest. Who can eat the most at dinner. It goes on and on.

“It has been like that from the get-go. It started with who could get their seatbelt on in their child seat first in the car. It’s everything,” Jeff says with a laugh from his home in Keswick Ridge, N.B. “They’re both very competitive. There’s no peace when they’re around. Even at 18 and 19 years old, it’s who lifted more weight in the gym today, who went to the gym more, who ran farther – they’re constantly able to push each other. And they’re each other’s best friend, too. With two boys, that’s to be expected.

“One thing that has been clear during the pandemic is having each other has been very helpful. They have pushed each other, trained each other and they’ve had each other. A lot of young athletes or people in general have been alone and haven’t been able to see their friends. They have a built-in best friend even though they have their own friends as well.”

Sam and Venel are your typical Canadian boys in many ways. They grew up in a small town, were handed hockey sticks and skates at a young age, learned to skate on a pond behind their house and fell in love with the game.

The Campbell boys played minor hockey from U7 through to their U15 years, and continue to climb the ranks, with the brothers now playing Junior A in the Maritime Hockey League, Sam a member of the South Shore Lumberjacks and Venel with the Pictou County Crushers. Hockey has been a major part of their lives for as long as they can remember.

But this Canadian hockey tale is different than many others as well. Sam and Venel were born in Haiti, abandoned as young children before being adopted by Jeff and his wife Colleen O’Connell and brought to Canada when Sam was four years old and Venel was three.

Jeff Campbell, from the world of IT, and O’Connell, a rehabilitation professional, started a non-profit organization called Team Canada Healing Hands in 2002, which provides education and training for persons with disabilities and rehabilitation medicine in areas of low resource. The organization, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, started by working in Haiti but now aids people in various countries around the world, with more than 500 volunteer medical rehabilitation professionals lending support.

During one of the group’s early trips to Haiti, Colleen heard that Sam had been abandoned at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince and, upon learning more of his story, she and Jeff started the process to adopt Sam. They later adopted Venel and the family of four started its life in New Brunswick.

Hockey was the perfect introduction to Canada for the boys.

“We live out in the country, so we have a lot of land and there’s a pond area in the back,” Sam says. “We would go out there, skate. At that time, that’s the first time we had seen snow or ice so that was very new, and we fell in love with it right away. We would get our skates strapped on and learn to skate on the back pond. I would have started playing organized hockey around six or seven [years old] in our little community of Keswick Ridge.”

Sam was the first to start playing minor hockey. But like many little brothers, Venel wasn’t too far behind.

“I fell in love with the game of hockey so quickly,” Venel says. “I got my first pair of skates when I was about four or five and would skate on the pond. I would always watch my brother play hockey and I loved watching him play and wanted to play so bad. They let me play the next year and I fell in love with the game.”

The boys practiced, pushed each other and became good hockey players. Being one year apart in age, they played in the same division every other year. One season that stands out for both of them was U13, when the Campbell brothers both cracked the AAA Express in Fredericton. They were able to go to the rink together, practice and play on the same team and, as an added bonus, Jeff was the coach.

Colleen, a swimmer, and Jeff, a hockey player, grew up in athletic families. They learned the value of team sport and are pleased to now see what hockey and sport has given to Sam and Venel.

“What it’s really taught them or supported them with is confidence. Venel, particularly, has been extremely small his whole life. When he came to Canada at three-and-a-half years old, he was only 23 pounds but, when you watch him skate, no one sees how small he is,” says Colleen. “It’s enabled them to have a confidence in their own selves. And it’s also taught them about the ups and downs of life. You lose a game or you don’t make a team or you’re not picked to be the award winner, that’s what life is like. It’s also enabled them as they’ve gotten older to [learn] about responsibility. It’s instilled this good sense of taking responsibility for your fitness, your participation, your attitude. It’s helped them learn to deal with different types of personalities.

“We have kids who can do their own laundry, they can order in a restaurant, they know how to behave when they travel, they know how to interact and talk to adults. These are all things they have got to learn by being in the sports and team world, which are hugely important.”

The Campbell boys are extremely grateful for the lives they have in Canada. But Haiti will always be in their hearts. The family has taken two trips to Haiti over the years, with additional visits planned for the future. And with Sam and Venel entering adulthood – both are studying as well as playing hockey, with Sam at the University of New Brunswick and Venel at St. Francis Xavier University – the boys would love to get more involved in Healing Hands and helping out their home country.

“When I was younger, we went back to Haiti and we were able to help all of these kids there and we were able to give clothes and read them stories,” Venel says. “It felt like I belonged where I was at. It was nice to give back to the country where I came from. I always feel like in the future, that I’ll have some importance and I’ll do something for Haiti. It is my home and it’s where I came from, I can’t really forget about it. I just want the country to be better, and anything I can do to help revive that would be awesome.”

At the centre of the Campbell family is love. Love for the game of hockey, love for Haiti and Canada, love for each other. That love is evident when you ask Sam and Venel about their relationship with their parents.

“They are the best. I have no other words to describe them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here; they have given us such a better and fortunate life, basically saved our lives,” Sam says.

Adds Venel: “As the years went by, we just grew closer together as a family. It’s not just me and my brother who are competitive, my whole family is competitive. We all want to do the best and we all want the best for each other. I can’t thank my parents enough for what they’ve done for me, all the money and time they’ve put into my education and hockey and everything that let me be the guy I am today.”

For more information:

Dominick Saillant
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
514-895-9706
[email protected]

 

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

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