BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 16, 2012 – Virginia Tech alumni Winston and Marilyn Samuels had just arrived in Canada in 1994. They were sitting in the lobby of a local sports complex waiting for their sons' swim lessons when they first saw them.
"The boys kept pointing at these guys and their big pads who looked huge, like monsters and giants," Winston Samuels recalled with a laugh. "They looked mean with sticks and helmets and we'd never seen anything like it before!"
The Samuels instinctively moved in front of their two young sons, Courtney and Joel, to protect them from the "giants" with their sticks, helmets, and pads.
The "monsters" were in fact ice hockey players making their way to the rink. Having grown up on a farm in Jamaica, Winston Samuels had never seen an ice hockey game, much less a player.
Fast forward 18 years and Winston Samuels, who earned his master's in animal and poultry sciences from Virginia Tech in 1980, and his Ph.D., also in animal and poultry sciences, in 1983, has become a huge fan of the sport. He follows both the Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League. But his favorite player on the ice today is playing at his alma mater.
Samuels' youngest son Joel Samuels of Warwick, N.Y., a senior majoring in agribusiness in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, currently stars for the Virginia Tech club ice hockey team.
Soon after discovering the sport in 1994, Courtney and Joel convinced their parents to let them give it a try. But before they could play, they had to learn how to skate properly.
When the family moved to St. Louis, Mo., in 1996, the boys continued their skating lessons and were eventually allowed to play hockey.
"For two years Joel never touched a puck," Winston Samuels said. "When he finally touched a puck, you could see the big smile on his face."
While both boys excelled at the sport, it was Joel who truly fell in love with it, and he turned out to be a natural. So much so that his skating got the attention of a pair of NHL players who happened to skate at the rink during their offseason.
Al McInnis and Chris Pronger, both members of the St. Louis Blues at the time, noticed Joel's skating and began to work with him. These weren't just any NHL players; McInnis won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, while Pronger has won a Stanley Cup, two Olympic Gold Medals, and is still playing in the NHL.
With that kind of tutoring, it wasn't a surprise that Joel went on to be recruited to play collegiate hockey in the northeast. He had scholarship offers from several notable hockey schools, but his parents encouraged him to give Virginia Tech a chance, despite the fact its club hockey team wasn't on the same level as the schools that were recruiting him.
"It was very challenging to have Joel even think about Virginia Tech," said Marilyn Samuels, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1982. "It was the late Dr. Norrine Bailey Spencer who encouraged Joel. She told him that he had the leadership ability to come and make Virginia Tech a better hockey school."
Those words resonated with Joel and he ended up choosing Virginia Tech. Getting a player of Joel's ability instantly made Virginia Tech's club team better, but it wasn't enough to get the program to where the Samuels felt it could be.
Winston, who is the president and chief executive officer of Maxx Performance Inc., and Marilyn Samuels began donating money to the team through Virginia Tech's Division of Student Affairs. They helped pay for team buses to and from games, which took the burden of driving long distances off the players.
"Hockey is a very expensive sport and these kids don't get athletic scholarships," Samuels said. "They just love the sport and dedicate themselves to making this program better."
Last March, the team advanced to the American Collegiate Hockey Association's National Division II Tournament for the first time in the program's history. With support from the Samuels family both on and off the ice, the team has gotten better.
The Samuels, who are members of Virginia Tech's Caldwell Society, have dedicated much of their lives to making their alma mater, as a whole, better.
In addition to supporting the club hockey team, they've also given to the agriculture economics department, the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Endowed Lecture Fund, multicultural affairs, and animal sciences, and they are passionate supporters of a study abroad scholarship program.
"Our commitment is to give to Virginia Tech such that students will go out and then be able to bring back," said Winston Samuels. "They need to go to Africa, Brazil, Katmandu, Canada, and see what's going on out there, because the world is big and we cannot see the world from Blacksburg."
If anyone knows about getting out and seeing the world, it's Winston Samuels. He knew the world was bigger than his small farm in Jamaica. He just didn't know there would be ice hockey.
The Virginia Tech club ice hockey team hosts the Ohio State Buckeyes on Friday, Nov. 16, at the Roanoke Civic Center. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m.. Keep up with the Hokies ice hockey team online.