Friday, January 02, 2009

R.I. P. Don Sanderson - A Hockey Death

Don Sanderson, a player for the Whitby Dunlops of Major League Hockey died earlier today. He had been in a coma since getting into a fight with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast on December 12, 2008. Sanderson is the first player to die as the direct result of a head injury since Bill Masterton.

Those calling for an end to hockey violence before a player is killed have missed the boat by roughly a century. Verifiable deaths happened over one hundred years ago, and there might well have been some before that, lost in the dim light of hockey’s dawn. Historical records show Owen McCourt died way back in 1907. Edgar Dey won the 1909 Stanley Cup with the Ottawa Hockey Club but didn’t get to regale grandkids with tales of the grand feat; he died three years later. Cause of death? In both cases, complications from on-ice head injuries. The only NHL player to lose his life as a direct result of playing the game was Bill Masterton; he lives on in the NHL trophy bearing his name.

The latest ammunition in the arguments about hockey violence, specifically hits to the head, is a 21-year-old young man. Don Sanderson of the storied Whitby Dunlops lay in a Hamilton hospital, unaware of the debate his injury triggered. Sanderson was used to dangling a puck on a string. His parents watched fate dangle their comatose son’s life in front of tear-filled eyes, while sitting next to a hospital bed far from home.

Sanderson was doing what so many Canadians do with their precious few hours of winter leisure time – playing hockey. Most post-adolescent players sweat it out in various beer leagues. Sanderson plied his craft at a higher level in Major League Hockey, successor to the Ontario Hockey Association. Unlike the typical Friday night post-work shinny, the OHA has been host to many top players, including former NHLers Rick Vaive, Wayne Cowley(one NHL game still counts), Peter Zezel, Gilbert Dionne, and Todd Harvey. Winners of the championship get the chance to compete for the Allen Cup, Canada’s top honour for senior amateur male hockey.

Don Sanderson won’t get that chance this season. His stats show the defenceman was not a finesse player. During three seasons in the OJMHL – Junior A – he racked up 195 penalty minutes in 75 games, finding time to notch 2 goals and 7 assists. Even though he was not drafted into the OHL, Sanderson had no trouble getting on the Whitby Dunlops roster.

In a league that supposedly has zero tolerance for fighting, Sanderson and Corey Fulton, (the Brantford Blast player he fought with) had combined for seven fighting majors in their combined 18 games. The fact that each major came with a game misconduct was not a deterrent. No one can guarantee Sanderson would not be in a coma if his helmet stayed on. Save the bets for the Super Bowl. Helmets, like seat belts can be life savers.

One side in the battle over head hits makes the point that violence and fighting have always been a part of hockey. This is historically inaccurate. Organised hockey was originally a game of skill and endurance, having nothing to do with pugilistic punches. The game was so tame, women(referred to back then as the fairer sex) were encouraged to play in their own matches. This camp also makes the case that giving penalties for improperly secured helmets would be too onerous a task for NHL referees. If they can measure for illegal sticks and dole out sin bin minutes for flappy fight straps, shifty helmets should logically be another night at the rink for the zebras.

Those in favour of banning head shots and calling for penalties on improperly secured helmets are accused of changing the game, making it a “sissy” sport. Bad situations require good changes. From the time hockey players first lace ‘em up they’re told to keep both hands on the stick, keep said stick on the ice, and “keep your head up.” The cry to mandate keeping those heads covered, regardless of age, is getting louder and louder.

Don Sanderson did not live long enough to hear it.



Katherine said...

Great piece on an important subject. Very humbling to read.

"Dave Schultz" said...

well written. Too bad it had to be written.

Powderhornhockey said...

Very nice piece on the subject. I have also added my own 2 cents in my own blog. I'm in favor of making chin straps actually keep helmets on. We are never going to see players with full face cages in the professional leagues in our lifetime and mouthpieces if they can offer protection partially block airways.

The argument against tighter chin straps is that to hit a player with a helmet strapped on is to invite either a fracture or a soft tissue injury to a hand in a fight. However given the the percentage of players that actually drop the gloves is fairly small compared to those that have their heads hit the glass and ice in collisions etc, some adjustment could be made for enforcers. This is a difficult subject, it forces the macho hockey culture to look at stats, tradition and it's own vulnerability. But as both a hockey photographer and nurse who has worked with TBI patients one death like Don Sanderson's is too many. Hockey at all levels needs to do some serious talking on the subject of helmets what they protect.