A skater to remember

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

WHITBY -- Exactly one year after tragedy claimed the life of Don Sanderson, a gathering of family, friends and former teammates will congregate Saturday evening inside the quaint confines of Scugog Arena in Port Perry to celebrate the life and memory of a 21-year-old hockey player who left this world far too early.

Organized by his mother, Dahna, the emotional on-ice vigil will allow those close to Sanderson to pay tribute to the former Whitby Dunlop, who passed away on Jan. 2, 2009 from head trauma suffered during a fight in a triple-A senior league game three weeks earlier.

The event is being called "A Skate to Remember."

But, truth be told, for many of those whose lives were directly touched by the tragic events, it has been difficult to forget.

And always will be.

"For those who played with Don last year, it will never leave them," Dunlops president Steve Cardwell says.

"When they watch their grandkids play one day, they'll always remember the Don Sanderson fight and the aftermath."

To mark the one-year anniversary of his death, a moment of silence will be observed prior to the Dunlops-Orillia Tundra game Saturday afternoon at Whitby's Iroquois Park.

Several hours later, once the final horn has sounded, players, coaches and front-office staff who were with the Dunlops a year ago will pack their skates and make the short trip north to Port Perry.

"We wouldn't miss it," coach Matt Armstrong says. "It's for Don, our good friend, our teammate ... We will be there for him and his family.

"Don hasn't left us. He's always in our hearts and minds. Every day we think of Don. Every game here we think of Don. Every game won is for Don."

* * *

To this day, T.J. Rudnicki can still sense the sickening thud of Don Sanderson's skull cracking on the ice.

"It was like a tree falling," says the Dunlops backup goalie, who was sitting on the bench at the time. "Usually, when you lose your balance in a fight, you try to get your hands down. Or you go butt-first. Or your shoulders. This was like a solid tree going down.

"He didn't have a chance. It was really sad."

The date was Dec. 12, 2008 and the Dunlops were in Brantford for a game against the Blast. Sanderson had become entangled with Brantford's Corey Fulton when they dropped their gloves.

"I remember watching this kid fight," says Bob McQuat, Sanderson's defence partner. "He was giving some good punches, taking some good punches and I was thinking: 'Man, just fall down, just grab on.' But he was a tough kid and he hung in there."

Until Sanderson, whose helmet had come off, lost his balance.

"He kind of hung on to the guy, falling down. The guy kind of fell on top of him. You could hear it."

Sanderson was out cold for about 30 seconds before briefly regaining consciousness. He lapsed into a coma two days later and was on life support until the time of his death.

The tragedy understandably rocked the Dunlop players, so much so that Cardwell subsequently enlisted professional counsellors to help those on the team deal with the shock.

"They talked about death, family members, organizational health and how the guys were feeling," Cardwell says. "We asked the guys to go through that and they all did. We, as an organization, felt it would help them here.

"Having said that, each guy was different and handled it different. Some have been able to handle it and go back on to the ice; others have struggled."

* * *

On Dec. 12, on the one-year anniversary of the scrap that eventually claimed Don Sanderson's life, the Whitby Dunlops had simply had enough of the Orillia Tundra during a heated contest at Iroquois Park.

So, off came the gloves.

How ironic.

"It was a weird situation," Rudnicki says. "After the game, there were just a whole bunch of disagreements that led to a couple of fights, things like that. You know what? It was just the luck-of-the-draw type of thing. It just happens. Everybody's tempers flare up and you kind of temporarily forget about (the Sanderson incident) at the time.

"Looking back at it, I kind of wish we hadn't gone out there and fought ... it being the anniversary and all."

Given the anti-fighting media frenzy that mushroomed from Sanderson's death, you would think those teammates who witnessed the tragedy would push for fisticuffs to be banned from the sport.

Instead, to a man, they claim it will not happen, even in senior hockey where there is zero tolerance for fighting.

"You're never going to get rid of it because of the way the game is played," McQuat says.

"With the stickwork that is involved, well, it's kind of an internal policing that goes on. Automatically, you feel that it's not necessary, that it didn't need to happen. But it's part of the game, always will be."

Cardwell says there have been positives that have come out of Sanderson's death: Improvements in equipment, especially helmets, and a renewed awareness concerning head shots, from the National Hockey League right down to kids leagues.

"Personally, I don't think you are ever going to get rid of fighting in hockey," Cardwell says.

"It's that one sport where the physical violence is so fast. The way to vent is by dropping your gloves.

"I just think what came out of last year's incident was that clearly the equipment had to change. The helmets. The straps. Now, according to the rules, if the helmet comes off the fight has to stop. And at one point I think players are going to get tired of punching helmets."

* * *

Those who knew Don Sanderson cannot say enough about his kindness. About how he donated his spare time to help kids with their on-ice training. And about the time, just a month before his death, when he handed out candy canes to kids at the Whitby Santa Claus parade.

The Dunlops have recognized that hanging Sanderson's jersey on a wall inside Iroquois Park beside those belonging to the likes of NHL stars Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and the Primeau brothers, Wayne and Keith, some of Whitby's most famous sons.

And for those at the Scugog Arena on Saturday night, Don Sanderson and the tragic events of one year ago, will never be forgotten, jersey or no jersey.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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