PORT PERRY, Ont. – A 21-year-old hockey player who died after hitting his head on the ice during a fight was remembered Monday as great teammate and friend who had a soft spot for Christmas.
Some 500 people gathered at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church for Don Sanderson’s funeral in his hometown of Port Perry, northeast of Toronto.
The priest conducting the service said Christmas was Sanderson’s favourite time of year, and “Silent Night” was his favourite festive song. The gathered mourners sang a few verses from the tune, prompting Sanderson’s mother Donna to break down in tears.
Sanderson, a rookie defenceman with the Whitby Dunlops of the Ontario Hockey Association, died Friday after falling into a coma following a tussle during a game at the Brantford Civic Centre on Dec. 12.
He was squaring off against Brantford Blast forward Corey Fulton during the third period when his helmet fell off. Towards the end of the fight, both players tumbled to the ice.
Sanderson struck the back of his bare head and 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.
Among those attending Monday’s funeral was hockey commentator Don Cherry, who had offered condolences to Sanderson’s parents during Saturday night’s “Hockey Night In Canada” broadcast.
At that night’s NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre, players from both teams paid tribute to Sanderson, tapping their sticks on the ice as his image was shown on the video screen.
“It shows you how the hockey community, they’re a family, and how we feel,” Cherry said outside the service. “You could see the Toronto Maple Leafs and what they said, and I remember the one (Matt) Stajan said: We all feel that we’ve lost a member of our family almost, and I don’t know what else to say except God love him and we’re all here for him.”
Many of Sanderson’s teammates with the Dunlops – some sporting their hockey jerseys – also attended the funeral, with some remembering him as an “amazing” teammate and friend who had a bright future in hockey and school.
The Dunlops are a senior AAA team, the highest level of senior amateur hockey in Canada for players aged 21 and over at the start of the season.
Sanderson’s death has reignited the debate over the rules governing the use of helmets by hockey players.
Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident, as is standard procedure in such cases.