Friends, family, and famous faces from the hockey fraternity turned out in large numbers to pay their final respects to Peter Zezel on Friday at Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church in Mississauga . The 44-year-old former NHLer passed away Tuesday after a long battle with a rare blood disorder.
Zezel was a key member of the 1993 Leafs, which came within a game of the Stanley Cup finals. He was a tenacious forward who was revered for his face-off skills, but more importantly, he was a generous, thoughtful man off the ice, and it was those qualities that resonated most.
Zezel, a Toronto native, was a star with the Jr. A Marlboros before being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. He went on to play for numerous NHL teams during a career that spanned 15 years.
Along the way he racked up 608 points.
Upon retirement, he stayed active in the community, running popular hockey and soccer camps in the GTA. He also coached the Don Mills Flyers of the GTHL.
According to former Leaf and teammate Doug Gilmour, it was his work with kids that meant the most to him.
“He was there as a teacher and for these guys as a friend too,” he said outside the funeral home.
“It’s a shock and we’re all disappointed, we all loved him, we still can’t believe it.”
“He was a tremendous athlete and just a good team player. The two years that we made the conference final, he was a big reason why we made it,” added former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher.
Wendel Clark was another former teammate with fond memories of the man he affectionately calls ‘Zez’.
“Well Zez was a great guy, loved playing the game, loved sports, loved life, and that’s the best part about Zez, is from the hockey playing days to post career, coaching the kids, and whether it was soccer or hockey, (he loved) being around people,” Clark said.
“It’s a tough one for everybody.”
“He was just an ambassador for the game and an ambassador for how to live life and have fun.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in Zezel’s name to the James Birrell Fund at the Hospital for Sick Children. Birrell is an eight-year-old boy who died of neuroblastoma , a fight he managed with the courage that Zezel also displayed in his own battle with a serious illness. Donations can be made online here.
Here’s a look back on Zezel’s career on the ice.
Zezel got noticed early in the city where he would one day become a fixture. He played for the Toronto Marlboros between 1982 and 1984, impressing scouts with 82 goals in just two seasons.
That helped him get noticed and get drafted. He wound up being picked 41st overall in the ’83 NHL Entry Draft and was selected by the Flyers for his offensive punch. It would not take long for them to realize what a gem they’d found.
He spent eight seasons with his original team, starting in 1984. He finished that first year with 16 goals, 46 assists – a team record for a rookie – and 61 points overall, coming in fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. And what a start – he reached the Stanley Cup finals that first year, before the team lost to the Oilers. He was just 19.
By the 86-87 season, Zezel was not only still a Flyer, he was flying. He scored a career-high 33 goals and finished with 72 points. Another trip to the finals yielded the same result – a loss to the Oilers.
In 1986, he appeared off ice and on screen in the film Youngblood.
St. Louis Blues
There were more career bests when Zezel was traded to the Blues for the 1988-89 season, notching 49 assists and 70 points. Another Zezel team was playoff bound and he impressed his teammates by leading the Blues with 6 goals and 12 points in just 10 games.
He would return there for another tenure between 1995 and 1997.
His stop in the U.S. capital wasn’t an especially productive or long one. He was there for just 20 games in 1990, still managing seven goals and five assists.
Toronto Maple Leafs
He came home to his dream team and despite not spending a full season here, he wound up with 14 goals and 14 assists. The next year, his output grew to 16 goals and 33 assists, a 49 point season. Pat Burns’ arrival as coach led to him being reassigned as a defensive specialist and while his output plummeted his contributions were as major as ever.
He was one of the spark plugs that led the Leafs to within a game of the Stanley Cup finals back in ’93. The next year, he scored the overtime winner in Game 1 of the
Injuries began to take their toll and he would miss several games with a back injury. He spent four seasons with the Leafs and despite going on to other teams, many here remember him best in the Blue and White.
It’s 1994 and Zezel suffers one of the biggest disappointments of his career, thanks to a knee injury that only allowed him to play 30 games.
New Jersey Devils
Things went from bad to worse in 1997, when he wound up in New Jersey and then was forced down to the minors. He did well enough to return to the big club, scoring 17 points in just 25 games.
His final NHL stop came out west in 1997, where he played 66 games for the Canucks. We’ll never know what might have happened after that. When his niece in Toronto was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1999, he requested a trade to a team that would allow him to be closer to home. But instead GM Brian Burke sent him to Anaheim , which was even farther away.
An upset Zezel announced his retirement and came back home, winning the admiration of his teammates and fans for a selfless act that had followed what was perceived as Burke’s crass one.
His final stats: 873 games, 219 goals, 389 assists and total of 608 points. But it was his off ice activities that cemented his relationship as an all time good guy. He started the Peter Zezel Hockey and Sports Camp in 1998, teaching what he’d learned to young kids with NHL dreams.
The disease that would eventually claim his life, Hemolytic Anemia, was diagnosed in 2001. The rare blood disorder and the medications used to combat it caused him to gain a dangerous amount of weight, and for some time his health was in dire jeorpary. Somehow, he managed to recover before it got worse in 2009 and he was forced to undergo chemotherapy.
Earlier this week, following an operation to have his spleen removed, he developed complications, and complained of severe headaches. Further surgery revealed a brain haemorrhage. He went into a coma and with no chance of recovery, his family made the tough decision to take him off life support.
A true champion to the end, Zezel’s loved ones made the decision to donate his organs to help others. He died on May 26th, at the age of just 44.