The Spokane hockey community lost one of its favorite sons on Tuesday when Novelli “Nels” Venerus died at the age of 62 following a yearlong battle with liver cancer.
Venerus, who immigrated with his family from Basiliano, Italy, to Cochenour, Ontario, when he was 6 years old, spent nine seasons as a member of the Western International Hockey League’s Spokane Flyers and Spokane Chiefs from 1974-85, and was a member of Spokane’s 1976 and 1980 Allan Cup championship teams.
He didn’t play during the 1978-79 season when the Flyers joined the short-lived Pacific Hockey League, opting instead to coach Spokane’s junior team, the Flames.
As a player, the 5-foot-7, 170-pounder, endeared himself to local fans with his all-out effort on the ice. He had some scoring skills, as well, as evidenced by the 85 points he put up during the 1973-74 season.
“He was an intense player,” said fellow Italian immigrant George Talotti, who was also part of the 1976 Allan Cup champion- ship team. “He wasn’t that big of a guy in stature, but he didn’t take anything from anybody. He was just a grinding, competitive player who worked hard every game.”
Venerus started his junior hockey career in Flin Flon, Manitoba, and turned pro in 1971, playing two seasons with the San Diego Gulls and another with the Cranbrook Royals before joining the Flyers.
After retiring as the Chiefs’ team captain in 1985, Venerus remained active on the ice as a founder of the Spokane Oldtimers Hockey Association, Inc., last skating in the spring of 2010. He was also an accomplished skier, softball player and golfer.
“Nels was a kind, giving person, and became the godfather to many of the younger players’ children,” Talotti said. “He would always remember them on birthdays and Christmas. He was always there for his friends, no matter what was needed.
“Nels was as popular off the ice as he was on the ice, and will be missed by his many friends.”
According to Talotti, another former Flyers teammate and one of Venerus’ closest friends, Gail Holden, took over as Venerus’ caregiver in his final days, even taking him into his home.
“They were as close as brothers,” Talotti said.
Funeral services for Venerus, who is survived by four brothers, will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Aloysius Church, with a reception to follow at the Sons of Norway lodge.