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News that Neil Hope, an actor from the acclaimed Canadian television show Degrassi Junior High, had died five years ago but whose death was only publicly confirmed on Thursday stunned even the producers of the show.

"It did catch us completely unaware," says Stephanie Cohen, vice-president of marketing at communications at Epitome Pictures.

Degrassi producers Stephen Stohn and Linda Schuyler started hearing rumours of Hope's death two weeks ago, Cohen said.

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Stohn, who is currently outside the country on vacation, released a statement via Twitter on Thursday.

"We have respected the privacy of the family by not saying anything until now, but our entire team is very emotional about his passing," he wrote.

A Facebook group called "Let's Bring The Real Neil Hope ("Wheels" from Degrassi) To Facebook" features a post from Jan. 12 of this year written by Hope's sister-in-law, Tracy Northrup Hope, saying that Hope died of natural causes on Nov. 25, 2007.

Christina Boulard, the actor's fiancée, released a statement on Thursday saying, "The family regrets to announce that Neil passed away in Hamilton, Ontario on November 25, 2007 of natural causes. There was some confusion regarding his passing that they do not wish to go public with, which is why they are only announcing his death now to the public and the media."

Cohen said she did not know what that "confusion" might refer to. Nor does she know the specifics of the cause of Hope's death. Compounding the mystery, Cohen said she also does not know why the Hope family has now publicly announced the actor's death. Neither Boulard nor Hope's sister-in-law could be reached for comment.

Hope was 35 when he died. He last appeared on the Degrassi series in 2003 in an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation.

Born in Ontario to alcoholic parents, Hope took up acting at a young age, first as Griff on The Kids of Degrassi Street and then as Wheels on Degrassi Junior High. He would eventually go on to discuss his parents' alcoholism in a series called Degrassi Talks, in 1992. Hope also made a documentary about children of alcoholic parents, called The Darker Side.

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"His life was not an easy one but the time he spent with us was a shining example of determination, hard work and hopeful optimism and he is sorely missed," Stohn and Schuyler said Thursday in a joint statement.

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