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Everything seemed to be going Darcy Robinson's way.

He was settling in with his teammates in Asiago, preparing for the start of his third season with the Italian Ice Hockey League team.

His girlfriend had just arrived from Canada and was eager to watch Robinson play.

But less than 3 1/2 minutes into the first period of Thursday's game between Asiago and Renon, something went horribly wrong. Robinson fell to the ice without being hit. The trainer and teammates rushed to his side.

At 7:32 of the second period, word came back: Robinson had died en route to a nearby hospital. He was 26. Cause of death: not official but believed to be a heart attack.

Family, friends and former teammates reacted with shock and sadness Friday as news of Robinson's passing made its way across the ocean and across our land.

What proved most stunning was that a strapping defenceman (6-foot-5, 222 pounds) with no obvious health issues could die at such a young age without being touched.

"He always checked out well with us," said Brent McEwen, the former general manager of the Saskatoon Blades, where Robinson played 3 1/2 seasons in the WHL. "We never heard of any problems … The ironic thing is two days ago I woke up thinking about him. I had no reason. Then I heard the news. It hit me like a ton of bricks."

Robinson was born and raised in Kamloops, B.C., and had dual Canadian-Italian citizenship. He was a premier athlete growing up but hockey didn't always come easily to him. He had to work on his skating and stick-handling. But whatever he was asked to do, he did it with a passion.

"He was like the friendly giant," said former Saskatoon teammate Derek Halldorson. "I think he was 6-foot-3 when I first met him [at 15] He loved playing the game, coming to the rink and hanging out with the guys. He was fairly talkative in the dressing room and he would sign autographs for the kids.

"He always had a smile on his face."

Robinson worked hard enough to be drafted by the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. He was a late pick (233rd in 1999) and signed with Pittsburgh as a 20-year-old. He never made it to the NHL but he did play in more than 150 games in the AHL.

"He had his limitations but he overcame them," McEwen said. "We traded him to Red Deer [midway through the 2000-2001 WHL season]and he capped his career with a Memorial Cup … I'm so glad he got to win a Memorial Cup."

Italian league officials cancelled all of Thursday night's games, postponed Friday night's game between Asiago and Pontebba and all of this weekend's games. The ANSA news agency reported Friday the local prosecutor's office has opened an official inquiry into Robinson's death.

The last player to die in an Italian league game was 19-year-old Miran Schrott in 1992. He was struck in the chest with seemingly harmless slash by Canadian Jimmy Boni. The hit caused what was dubbed a concussion of the heart.

Boni was charged with culpable homicide. He later pled guilty to manslaughter, paid a court-ordered fine of $1,300 and another $175,000 to Schrott's family.