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McKenzie: Don Sanderson to be honoured

Bob McKenzie
1/2/2009 1:42:55 PM
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Don Sanderson, dead at age 21.

There's no sense trying to make sense of the death of someone so young. So all we are left to do is offer some consolation to his mother Dahna and his father Mike, and any other family and friends, after having gone through a life-altering, 22-day ordeal that is absolutely unimaginable in its sheer dreadfulness.

Don Sanderson slipped away peacefully at 1:15 a.m. this morning in Hamilton General Hospital, three weeks to the day that he suffered massive head trauma when his bare head struck the ice in a hockey fight during a senior game at Brantford, Ont.

He underwent brain surgery on Dec. 13, but never came out of a coma, being kept alive by life support, until last night.

How do you reconcile something like that?

The answer is, you don't.

"He was doing something he loved (playing hockey)," his father Mike said. "When your son goes out the door to play hockey, it's not what you expect to happen. Maybe you get a phone call that he's cracked an ankle or hurt himself somehow. But this? As a parent, it's hard..."

For now, the Sanderson family will grieve and they will no doubt be joined by the Whitby Dunlop family that Sanderson was a part of. Because the hockey community is what it is - large, but tight knit - many will share in that grief.

At some point down the road, though, as Mike Sanderson tries to piece together a shattered life, something will be done to honor the memory of his son, a York University undergrad who was playing his first season of senior hockey with the Dunlops.

"We want to keep his name alive, honor his memory in some way," Mike Sanderson said. "We're going to do something involving education and kids and sports in his name because Don loved hockey and he loved kids."

Mike Sanderson, who teaches power skating and has been around the game of hockey all of his life, fully understands the death of his son will likely trigger some dialogue on fighting in hockey. He personally accepts what happened to his son as a horrible and tragic "fluke accident" but understands everything from fighting itself to the issue of helmets coming off or being taken off during fights will be up for debate. But that will, for now anyway, be left to others to sort out.

Don Sanderson is, it is believed, the first hockey fatality in North America as a result of on-ice play since Paul Fendley died in 1972 during a Centennial Cup game. Fendley was checked by an opponent and tried to catch his balance while still handling the puck and lost his helmet in the process, falling and striking the bare back of his head on the ice.

Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars also died after he accidentally struck his bare head on the ice in an NHL regular season game in 1968.

Sanderson's death is the first recorded fatality as a direct result of injuries suffered in a hockey fight.

For the record, Sanderson was playing in a league where any fight carries with it an automatic ejection from the game. And he didn't voluntarily take off his helmet; it came off in the course of the fight and the fatal injuries were caused when the two players fighting fell to the ice and Sanderson's unprotected head hit the ice.

There will no doubt be a rush to judgment from both the pro- and anti-fighting forces in hockey.

And there will also be an examination of rules that allow players to voluntarily discard their helmets before they fight, which obvious increases the risk factor for serious and, now, potentially fatal consequences.

All of that is to be expected and it's not necessarily a bad dialogue to have. In fact, to not have it would be negligent.

But it will be important during these debates and discussions to be sensitive to the loss of life here, and keep in mind that a family is grieving over the loss of a 21-year-old young man who was just starting his life. That said, we should also be equally concerned that the tragedy here is not minimized in any way.

One can only imagine what the reaction would be if this tragedy occurred in an NHL game in, say, Madison Square Garden involving an NHL player as opposed to a Senior A game in Brantford involving a university student.

That shouldn't matter of course because Don Sanderson's life has every bit as much as value as any NHL player's.

And we would all do well to remember that as our thoughts and prayers are with the Sanderson family at this very difficult time.

Bob McKenzie

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