WHITBY, Ont. - Residents of Whitby, Ont., packed a local arena Saturday night to honour the memory of Don Sanderson and remember the hockey player, coach, son, grandson and friend who died Jan. 2, three weeks after he was injured in an on-ice fight.
The jersey of the 21-year-old rookie defenceman bearing the number 40 was hoisted to the rafters at the Iroquois Sports Centre prior to an Ontario Hockey Association game between the Whitby Dunlops and Brantford Blast.
Hours before the game, family, friends and teammates hugged and shed tears as they came together to reminisce about Sanderson at a cafe inside the arena complex. For many, it was the first time they had seen Don's parents since his funeral.
"It's another opportunity to bring everyone together in Donald Sanderson style," said Don's mother, Dahna Sanderson, who made her way around the room greeting everyone.
"That's what I said to one of my girlfriends: 'Look at him, he's bringing everyone together again even when he's not here."'
Dahna said that since her son's death, the public response had been both overwhelming and humbling. She's still struck by how unreal the entire situation still feels.
"Raising Donald's sweater to the rafters will be like raising his heart, because that's what he's all about. He's a passionate boy."
Don's father, Mike Sanderson, had been on the go since early Saturday morning with the girl's hockey team from Belleville that he coached with his son. They beat a team from Willowdale 2-1.
"It was probably the best game the girls have ever played." he said.
"Don would have loved to have been part of that."
Sanderson, who has run several power skating camps for kids, said that more than anything his son wanted to be a coach. He said his own mentor was former NHL coaching great Roger Neilson, who passed away from cancer in 2003.
"The only great thing about this is that Roger's in heaven and now Don's there, and Roger's going to take him under his wing and maybe teach him the wisdom of coaching."
Sanderson's death drew national media attention, and debates within the sport over helmets and fighting.
During a fight in a game at the Brantford Civic Centre on Dec. 12 against Blast forward Corey Fulton, Sanderson's helmet came off. Both players fell, and Sanderson's bare head smacked the ice.
Though he briefly regained consciousness, he later fell into a coma and would stay in hospital for three weeks before his death.
Earlier in the week, the Ontario Hockey League announced a new, stiffer penalty would be assessed to players in that league who remove their helmets before a fight. What was a $100 fine is now an immediate one-game suspension. Mike Sanderson called it a good first step.
"We can't play the game without a helmet, so why are you allowed to stay on the ice and fight without one?" he said.
Canada's most famous hockey dad, Walter Gretzky, agrees.
"I wish that (helmets) could be put on in such a way that they could never come off," said Gretzky, who was invited to be at centre ice by Dunlops' officials for the tribute to Sanderson. The Brantford, Ont., native said he was glad to come, and to be able to speak with Don's mom.
"It's so nice to see that there's no hatred in her," Gretzky said, in reference to any feelings Dahna Sanderson might have towards the player that fought her son.
The pre-game tribute began as Don's family and dignitaries gathered at centre ice. A video montage was then played featuring highlights of Don's play, along with media coverage of his death. It showed the Leafs' paying tribute to him before a game, and Don Cherry talking to reporters as he left the Port Perry church after Sanderson's funeral.
As the number 40 jersey was slowly raised to the ceiling, a children's choir sang "You Raise Me Up." Many people were seen with tears in their eyes as Dahna Sanderson capped the night by thanking everyone who came.
"Just as I did with my son, I encourage each of you to live your life fully, love like there is no tomorrow, and laugh out loud often because Don loved to laugh."