"Degrassi" fans and colleagues are expressing condolences Thursday after news that Neil Hope, who played "Wheels" on the series, apparently died five years ago.

Little is known about how Hope died or why his death was kept secret for so long. Facebook members who said they were his relatives posted a notice of his death last month, saying he died Nov. 25, 2007 from "natural causes."

In a tweet posted Thursday, executive producer Stephen Stohn indicated he had known about the actor's death for some time.

Executives had "respected the privacy of the family by not saying anything until now," Stohn wrote, adding the "entire team is very emotional about (Hope's) passing."

Hope appeared on "The Kids of Degrassi Street," "Degrassi Junior High," "Degrassi High" and "Degrassi: The Next Generation." In the latter three, he played the character, Derek (Wheels) Wheeler; a member of the band the Zit Remedy, who faced family trouble and alcoholism.

Show creator Linda Schuyler, who remains at the helm of the Degrassi franchise today, indicated Thursday that Hope had faced troubles in his real life as well. The actor had spoke publicly about his parents' addictions during the show's heyday.

"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," she said, in a joint statement with Stohn. "Neil made an important contribution to our lives, to the lives of our television team -- who are like a family to us -- and indeed to the lives of the many Canadians and others around the world who were influenced by Neil and the roles he played.

"We were terribly saddened to hear the news."

Hope's final "Degrassi" appearance was in 2003, on a "Next Generation" episode in which the Zit Remedy members reunite as adults and set aside long-standing bad blood. After a night at the bowling alley, they drive home in character Joey Jeremiah's convertible, singing their one-time hit "Everybody Wants Something."

A spokeswoman for Epitome Pictures, which produces the show, told The Canadian Press producers had lost touch with Hope over the past several years.

With files from The Canadian Press