Whitby Dunlops defenceman Don Sanderson died after spending nearly three weeks in a coma, the result of him hitting his head on the ice during a fight. ((Canadian Press))

Hundreds of family members, friends and teammates gathered in Port Perry, Ont., on Monday morning for the funeral of a senior hockey player who died after a fight during a game last month.

Don Sanderson died Friday after going into a coma following the fight during the Ontario Hockey Association game at the Brantford Civic Centre on Dec. 12. He was 21.

Among the 500 people who gathered at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Sanderson's hometown to pay their final respects were hockey commentators Don Cherry and Ron MacLean.

"We loved him with all our hearts, and I don't know how we're going to move on without him, but he'll be there to support us," said Dahna Sanderson, Don's mother, outside the church.

"All I ask is each and every one of you love each and every one of your family members every day. Tell them how much you love them. All I know is my heart is breaking because I will never hear my baby say: 'Love you, mom."'

'Always in our hearts'

Michael Sanderson called his son a hero.

"As parents we've always said, 'Everybody: hug your children. Have your children hug you and always have time to spend with them,"' he said.

"We won't have that time anymore but he'll always be in our hearts."

Rev. Peter Lackmanec led the congregation in a rendition of Silent Night, Sanderson's favourite song.

Many mourners wore emblems bearing Sanderson's uniform number (40) and some teammates wore their hockey jerseys in honour of the defenceman.

Lackmanec said Don Sanderson had a great passion for hockey and a great love for his parents.

"No child should ever predecease their parents," he said. "There is nothing worse than a mother or father to lose their child. ... What a precious gift that they had that is now gone."

Players pay tribute to Sanderson

Cherry mentioned Sanderson and offered condolences to his parents in his Coach's Corner segment on Saturday's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast during the first period of a Toronto Maple Leafs-Ottawa Senators game. Players from both the Leafs and Senators paid tribute to Sanderson, tapping their sticks on the ice as his image was shown on the video screen.

"It shows you how the hockey community, they're a family, and how we feel," Cherry said Monday outside the church. "You could see the Toronto Maple Leafs and what they said, and I remember the one (Matt) Stajan said: We all feel that we've lost a member of our family almost, and I don't know what else to say except God love him and we're all here for him."

Sanderson was a member of the Whitby Dunlops, a senior AAA team and the highest level of senior amateur hockey in Canada. He lost his helmet during a tussle with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast.

Both players fell, but Sanderson hit the ice with the back of his head and fell into a coma.

Sanderson's death has ignited a debate over whether fighting should be banned in hockey.

"There just doesn't seem to be any sort of appetite for any sort of debate for whether we should take fighting out," said Ken Campbell, a columnist with The Hockey News.

"I think it goes more beyond just … do we kick players out for fighting and dealing with the culture of violence that seems so prevalent in the game as well," he said.

Police investigating

Police in Brantford have opened an investigation into Sanderson's death, said Staff Sgt. Steve Sumsion.

"A police investigation such as this, at the direction of the coroner, is standard practice and procedure," Sumsion said.

The NHL has indicated it has no plans to change its rules on fighting in the aftermath of Sanderson's death.

"It's an issue that from time to time is a point of discussion, so this may prompt further discussion. But I don't sense a strong sentiment to change the rules we currently have relating to fighting," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email sent to Campbell last week.

With files from Canadian Press