TORONTO – The death of a 21-year-old hockey player who died three weeks after hitting his unprotected head on the ice during a fight has renewed calls for tougher rules governing the use of helmets.
Don Sanderson, a rookie defenceman with the senior AAA Whitby Dunlops of the Ontario Hockey Association, died shortly after 1 a.m. Friday at Hamilton General Hospital.
Senior AAA is the highest level of senior amateur hockey in Canada, involving players who are aged 21 and over – too old for the junior level – at the start of the season.
Sanderson, a native of Port Perry, Ont., was tussling with Brantford Blast forward Corey Fulton during the third period of a Dec. 12 game at the Brantford Civic Centre when his helmet fell off.
Towards the end of the fight, both players tumbled to the ice, causing Sanderson to strike the back of his bare head. He was out cold for about 30 seconds before he briefly regained consciousness. The York University student eventually fell into a coma, underwent brain surgery and was moved to life support until his death.
Dunlops president Steve Cardwell said the fight wasn’t particularly vicious.
“It didn’t look like it was as bad as obviously this has turned out to be,” Cardwell said.
“At the time it looked like so many other fights that anybody connected with hockey would have watched over the last number of years.”
Cardwell praised Sanderson as a fierce competitor and a valuable player with a big heart. While he said his main concern is helping the family cope, he believes there needs to be closer look at the broader circumstances of Sanderson’s death.
“Any time a tragedy like this happens – and it could have been prevented by a number of rule changes, or the way helmets are made, or the way that they work – that debate needs to happen,” he said.
“Because if you lose just one life and you don’t learn from it, then we’re all making a big mistake.”
League rules state that helmets approved by the Canadian Standards Association must be worn and fastened securely with a chin strap.
The general unwritten rule of thumb is that no more than one or two fingers should fit between the player’s chin and the strap, said OHA president Brent Ladds.
While Cardwell said “each player has a personal choice how he wears it,” officials will often point out improperly worn helmets during the pre-game warm-up, Ladds said.
He agreed Sanderson’s death should prompt discussion on the matter, and said the issue will be raised at the organization’s next monthly board meeting.
“I think our playing rulebook is full of rules that, in a lot of cases, are reactionary to something that’s happened or taken place,” he said.
“A situation as serious as this, it behooves us to sit down and say, what could we have done to prevent it and what can we do to prevent it in the future?”
While he’s seen players occasionally forced to tighten their chin straps, Dunlops captain Peter MacKellar said he doesn’t think the rule is being enforced strictly.
Following the fatal incident, however, he’s wondering whether the rule should be revisited.
“I got into a fight one or two games later and my helmet came off and all of a sudden you’re thinking about Don and you’re thinking, `Jeez this could happen right now,”’ he said.
“But I’ve seen so many helmets come off and I’ve seen people hit their heads on the ice before and, you know, (there were) no real complications.”
Sanderson had several on-ice scuffles this season; in 11 games with the Dunlops, he racked up four fighting majors.
The issue of helmet safety also came to the fore in 1998 when then-Ontario Hockey League player Sean Avery – who is now in the NHL – suffered a concussion and deep cut to the head when his helmet flew into the air after he was smashed into the glass by another player.
OHL commissioner David Branch said he believes responsibility for players’ safety lies with hockey organizations.
“All of us that are in positions to exercise some influence have an obligation to challenge as to what we can do to hopefully not see something like this occur again,” he said.
Within the OHA, players who get into a fight receive a game misconduct, while players who remove their own helmet during a fight are slapped with a gross misconduct.
MacKellar, who called the incident “a freak accident,” said the team will be dedicating the rest of the season to Sanderson.
“We’ll just have to … work just as hard as he did, because he really worked so hard this year and I was just so impressed with his work ethic and just his loyalty to his team,” he said.
“If we can rally for him and play for him – play in his honour – I think that’d be a nice touch.”
The Whitby Dunlops website said Sanderson’s funeral is likely to take place Jan. 6 in Port Perry.