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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))

A fight-related injury has cost a 21-year-old senior hockey league player his life.

Don Sanderson, a defenceman for the Whitby Dunlops, died in Hamilton General Hospital early Friday. The news was reported on the Whitby, Ont., team's website.

Sanderson had been in a coma since Dec. 14, as a result of a fight in an Ontario Hockey Association senior game against the Brantford Blast.

Senior AAA is the highest level of senior amateur hockey in Canada, involving players who are aged 21 and over — too old for the junior level — at the start of the season.

Sanderson was fighting forward Corey Fulton during the third period and his helmet came off during the confrontation. Near the end of the tussle, both players fell and Sanderson's unprotected head hit the ice.

Sanderson was out cold on the ice for about 30 seconds, before briefly regaining consciousness. He eventually fell into a coma and was on life support.

Dunlops president Steve Cardwell said the fight wasn't that rough.

"It didn't look like it was as bad as obviously this has turned out to be," he said. "At the time, it looked like so many other fights that anybody connected with hockey would have watched over the last number of years."

Cardwell said he thinks there needs to be a dialogue on the bigger issues surrounding Sanderson's death.

"Any time a tragedy like this happens — and it could have been prevented by a number of rule changes, or the way helmets are made, or the way that they work — that debate needs to happen," he said.

League rules state that helmets approved by the Canadian Standards Association must be worn and fastened securely with a chin strap. The unwritten rule is that no more than one or two fingers should fit between the player's chin and the strap, OHA president Brent Ladds said.

Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch said he believes responsibility for players' safety lies with hockey organizations.

"All of us that are in positions to exercise some influence have an obligation to challenge as to what we can do to hopefully not see something like this occur again," he said.

Within the OHA, players who get into a fight receive a game misconduct, while players who remove their own helmet during a fight are slapped with a gross misconduct.

Team dedicates season to player

Sanderson, a native of Port Perry, Ont., attended York University. He had also played in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League for the Ajax Attack and the Trenton Sting.

His death is making Whitby captain Peter MacKellar wonder if the rules should be changed.

"I got into a fight one or two games later and my helmet came off, and all of a sudden you're thinking about Don and you're thinking, 'Jeez this could happen right now,"' he said.

"But I've seen so many helmets come off and I've seen people hit their heads on the ice before and, you know, [there were] no real complications."

MacKellar said the Dunlops are dedicating the rest of the season to Sanderson's memory.

"We'll just have to work just as hard as he did, because he really worked so hard this year, and I was just so impressed with his work ethic and just his loyalty to his team," he said.

"If we can rally for him and play for him — play in his honour — I think that'd be a nice touch."

With files from the Canadian Press