Earl Cook, a Winnipeg hockey player and fan who captured Canadians' hearts with his lifelong health battles and his love of the game, has died of kidney failure. He was 23 years old.

Cook, who counted Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock and other professional athletes among his friends, died peacefully at about 5:40 a.m. CT Sunday at St. Boniface Hospital.

Cook had been battling cancer for the past 4½ years and he fought "like nobody I know," his foster mother, Debbie Hopkins, told CBC News.

"His motto was 'battle hard,' and boy, did he battle hard," Hopkins said Sunday.

At the same time, she added, "his kidneys were failing and I think he just didn't have the strength to fight anymore."

Cook had faced considerable adversity in his 23 years. Born prematurely with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, he also had Asperger's syndrome, Tourette syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Cook was moved around in the foster care system until Hopkins took him in seven years ago.

One leg amputated

After Cook was diagnosed in January 2007 with osteogenic sarcoma — a cancerous bone tumor — he had one of his legs amputated. He endured numerous rounds of chemotherapy and had nine surgeries, according to a blog maintained by Hopkins.

'He may have passed today, but with the way he lived his life, he never allowed this disease to beat him.' Mike Babcock

Even with his health challenges, Cook learned to play hockey and loved it. He switched to sledge hockey after he lost his leg.

In a feature profile that first aired on CBC's The National in March, Cook spoke about his love of hockey and, in particular, his favourite NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings.

Cook developed a unique friendship with Babcock and members of that team, often serving as an inspiration to the team.

"I say, 'Look, look at my life. Things aren't always going my way, but I always push it ... So if I can beat this, you guys can win one hockey game,'" Cook told the CBC's Reg Sherren.

In a statement issued by the Red Wings, Babcock said Cook had "an unbelievable spirit that allowed him to battle through a long list of challenges that most of us are fortunate to never know.

"He served as a fantastic role model for myself and our team," Babcock said. "He may have passed today, but with the way he lived his life, he never allowed this disease to beat him."

Tumour in kidney, heart, liver

According to Hopkins, Cook was slated to begin a "new kind of chemo" on Sept. 12, in the hopes it would shrink a tumour that had formed in his right kidney, his renal veins, two chambers of his heart and his liver.

"Earl became ill earlier this week and we ended up having to take him to the hospital," Hopkins said.

"He was there for about 24 hours and was starting to feel better, enough that we agreed with the doctors that we could take him home. And then once we got him home, I think he just started getting sicker."

Cook was scheduled to receive an NHL Alumni Award — the Ace Bailey Award of Courage — later this month. Hopkins said Cook had invited Babcock and some other close friends to join him at the awards ceremony in Toronto.

"Earl always believed that you should never give up on your dreams, that tough times don't last and tough people do, and that hockey is the best sport in the world," Hopkins said.