Dahna Sanderson stepped to a podium on Tuesday night at York University to deliver a message no parent should have to give - and one few would be able to, under the circumstances.
Composed and eloquent, Sanderson spoke at length about her son, Donald, the Whitby Dunlops player who died in January, 2009, after suffering head injuries in a senior league hockey fight.
It was a story that, at the time, rocked the hockey world, igniting intense debate over the merits of fighting and bringing about almost immediate rule changes in junior hockey.
Twenty-one months later, at a concussion management symposium in his honour, his mother said she was focused on creating more awareness about head injuries in hockey.
"I pray that you never have to sit with doctors asking you to make decisions about your loved ones like I had to make," Sanderson told a crowd of students, educators and concussion experts.
"Watching my beautiful, healthy, 6-foot-2, 200-pound young man lying unconscious for 21 days in the hospital, that's not a movie in my mind. That's my reality. That's my family's reality."
The forum was in large part Sanderson's creation, a result of financial assistance from the Donald Sanderson Memorial Trust Fund and a gathering that brought together various concussion experts to emphasize the importance of diagnosis and prevention.
Sanderson has attempted to steer the discussion of her son's death away from hockey's heated fighting debate, instead focusing on injury prevention as a way to bring about change.
"I believe there's a lot of different ways you can alleviate or correct things," she said.
"I don't want to get into a shouting match [over fighting] I want to impact people with valuable information. I want to be able to help them be responsible for their own decisions."
Among the event's other speakers was former NHLer Alyn McCauley, who battled concussions throughout his career and is now a pro scout with the Los Angeles Kings, and York University associate professor Alison Macpherson.
Macpherson's speech, in particular, hit on some eye-opening statistics. She presented detailed sports-related emergency room statistics for children five to 19 in Ontario, revealing that hockey was by far the most common cause for concussion-related hospital visits.
Of 6,429 sports-related concussions cited in the three-year period the study looked at, 2,057 were suffered while playing hockey.
Macpherson also pointed to data that showed introducing bodychecking at younger ages resulted in far more concussions. One study that compared peewee-aged players in Alberta to those in Quebec, where contact comes in at later ages, showed that players in the non-contact leagues were four times less likely to suffer head injuries.
She said the goal behind presenting the data was not to stop parents from enrolling their kids in hockey.
"I think we have to put it in perspective - I would not have done my job well if people go away from my talk scared to play hockey," Macpherson said. "I think we have to encourage kids to play hockey, I think it's a great sport and it teaches them so much.
"I think what we need to do as a hockey community is say 'what can we do collectively to make our sport safer?'"
Sanderson concluded her emotional speech saying she hoped her son's death would help prevent others from suffering similar tragedies.
"Donald's life made a difference," she said. "And even though he's gone, it will continue to make a difference."
She said in an interview afterward that she hopes to continue to create concussion awareness, potentially making the symposium an annual event.
"Talking about my son is not difficult because my son was my son, he was my world," Sanderson said. "He still is my world. He's my motivation and my inspiration.
"Putting something together like this and the reasons why we're talking about my son, yes, that is difficult. It's difficult every day to realize that he's not here. But it's him who drives me to do these things."Report Typo/Error