WINDSOR, Ont. - The sudden nature of NHL prospect Mickey Renaud's death hung heavy over his funeral Friday as 1,200 mourners said goodbye to the 19-year-old without knowing precisely what claimed the life of a young hockey sensation with his sights set squarely on the big leagues.
Men who exchanged firm handshakes outside St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church were reduced to tears inside as both Renaud's uncle and then his coach remembered a kid with a goofy grin who never let his considerable athletic gifts go to his head.
His mother, Jane Renaud, took comfort in laying her head on her husband Mark's shoulder. Renaud's brother and sister sat beside their parents, facing the high school graduation portrait of their late sibling.
With Renaud's No. 18 Windsor Spitfires jersey draped over his casket, Father Robert Couture acknowledged that the mystery of the Ontario Hockey League player's death was an all-consuming one.
"It is legitimate for us to ask that question, how a young man, a 19-year old full of life, full of goodness, an athlete, one who has so much to live for, has been taken away from us so quickly, so unfairly," Couture said.
"I don't know why. I wish I could give you that answer that's on your minds and on your hearts."
Renaud, drafted last year by the Calgary Flames, collapsed Monday at his home in Tecumseh, Ont., a bedroom community east of Windsor.
Preliminary autopsy results have only been released to the family and the coroner says it could be months before the cause of death is determined.
"Our family is devastated," Renaud's uncle, Chris Renaud, told the assembled mourners.
Renaud never let his good looks or prowess on the ice inflate his ego, and took great pleasure in lending a helping hand to people with special needs, his uncle said.
"He would ask them if they had to go to the bathroom. He would carry their things in school. He would push them around the track in their wheelchair because he wanted them to see how fun it was to go around fast," he said.
"For Mick, there was satisfaction in that."
Windsor Spitfires president and head coach Bob Boughner said Renaud's considerable hockey skills didn't translate when the 19-year old took on the job of power washing and staining the coach's backyard deck - a job that turned out "horrible," Boughner said to laughter.
"I thought about a few things Mickey would say here today if we could hear him," he said, his voice breaking.
"'Spitfire team,' he'd say, 'Boys, don't be sad for me, go out and play hard, empty your tanks . . . and don't ever stop until you hear the final buzzer go."'
Outside the church, Renaud's teammates donned their team sweaters and lined the walkway as his casket passed.
As the funeral procession moved down the street, young hockey players in Spitfire jerseys tapped their sticks on the pavement in salute.
Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch and Darryl Sutter, general manager of the Calgary Flames, were among the mourners.
The funeral coincided with a community gathering at the Windsor Arena, which included a video tribute and a book of condolences for fans and members of the public to sign.
"I can't say enough good about Mickey," said Lorne Mercer, an avid Spitfires fan. "He'll be sadly missed and it's just not going to be the same without him here."
Mitchell Resler, another young fan, said he admired Renaud's style both on and off the ice.
"I like that he respected the game and he didn't always trash talk to other people and he cared about other people," Resler said.
The NHL said it was planning to pay tribute to Renaud prior to Friday night's Flames game against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Flames selected the big centre with the 143rd overall pick in last year's entry draft.
Renaud showed solid development last season when he scored 22 goals and amassed 54 points in 68 OHL games. He had 21 goals and 41 points in 56 games this season, last playing in Owen Sound, Ont., on Sunday, when his team won 4-1.
"I always watched him," said 15-year-old Patrick Murphy, who plays for the Windsor minor triple-A team.
"(He was) hardest skater out there, biggest heart on the team."