PORT PERRY, Ont. – Don Sanderson was in a coma during Christmas and missed celebrating his favourite time of year, so hundreds of mourners solemnly sang a yuletide carol Monday at the funeral for the 21-year-old hockey player who died following an on-ice fight.
Rev. Peter Lackmanec said Sanderson’s favourite was “Silent Night,” and he led the congregation in an understated rendition of the song. Sanderson’s mother began weeping as the mournful voices filled the packed church.
“We loved him with all our hearts, and I don’t know how we’re going to move on without him, but he’ll be there to support us,” Dahna Sanderson said outside the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in this small community northeast of Toronto.
“All I ask is each and every one of you love each and every one of your family members every day. Tell them how much you love them.
“All I know is my heart is breaking because I will never hear my baby say: `Love you, mom.”’
She rocked back and forth as Lackmanec spoke of how Don Sanderson had a great passion for hockey and a great love for his mother and father.
“No child should ever predecease their parents,” he said. “There is nothing worse than a mother or father to lose their child. … What a precious gift that they had that is now gone.”
Many mourners wore emblems bearing Sanderson’s uniform number – 40 – that was also on display throughout the community, scrawled on a dusty pickup truck in one instance.
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 Dec. 12 game at the Brantford Civic Centre.
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.
Sanderson’s death has reignited the debate over the rules governing the use of helmets by hockey players.
OHA rules state that helmets approved by the Canadian Standards Association must be worn and fastened securely with a chin strap.
Association president Brent Ladds has said officials often point out improperly worn helmets during the pre-game warm-up and that the issue will be raised at the organization’s next monthly board meeting.
At least one hockey columnist, Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, has said Sanderson’s death should prompt a discussion about taking fighting out of the sport, but added there isn’t an appetite in the hockey world for such a debate.
On Monday, Sanderson’s Grade 8 basketball coach told the congregation the young man’s last emotion may have been anger, but Sanderson was not an angry person.
As sunlight streamed through stained glass and illuminated the walls of the church, several of his friends delivered touching eulogies characterizing Sanderson as their best friend, mentor and brother.
Michael Sanderson said outside the church that his son was his hero.
“As parents we’ve always said, `Everybody: hug your children. Have your children hug you and always have time to spend with them,”’ he said.
“We won’t have that time anymore but he’ll always be in our hearts.”
Among the approximately 500 people attending Monday’s funeral were “Hockey Night in Canada” personalities Ron MacLean and Don Cherry – the latter had offered condolences to Sanderson’s parents during Saturday night’s 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.
Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident, as is standard procedure in such cases.