Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A Major Loss

I had every intention of writing about the American Hockey League Final featuring the Manitoba Moose and Hershey Bears, but that's being put on hold. It's with great regret that I have to report that Peter Zezel, pictured with the Blues to the left, has passed on after fighting a blood disorder. The Toronto, Ontario native was 44. Zezel suffered from hemolytic anemia, a disorder where red blood cells are destroyed by the body before they can be replaced. Zezel was diagnosed in 2001 with this disorder, and had been fighting valiantly until his condition worsened and he was admitted to a Toronto hospital. After slipping into a coma, Mr. Zezel was taken off life support today, and was pronounced dead this afternoon.

Peter Zezel was born April 22, 1965 in Toronto, Ontario. Playing hockey in Toronto for the NHL's Maple Leafs was a dream of Zezel's as a boy, and he starred for the Toronto Marlies Junior-A club until he was drafted in 1983 by the Philadelphia Flyers at 41st overall. While he was a very talented scoring threat in junior hockey, Zezel also starred with Canada's Under-21 soccer team - skills he would use in the NHL later on.

Zezel cracked the Flyers' lineup as a 19 year-old in 1984-85, and showed off his scoring ability early on. He finished fifth in rookie scoring that season with 61 points, 46 of them as assists as he appeared to be cut from the same mold as Gretzky in terms of distributing the puck. His 46 assists at that time were a franchise record for a Flyers rookie, but it has since been broken.

Along with some other young stars such as Rick Tocchet, Tim Kerr, Brian Propp, and Murray Craven, the youthful Flyers surprised the NHL world by winning the President's Trophy with a record of 50-23-7 for 113 points, four better than the Edmonton Oilers. In the playoffs, the Flyers dispatched the Rangers 3-0, the Islanders 4-1 (ending the Islanders' streak of five straight Stanley Cup Final appearances), and the Quebec Nordiques 4-2 before running into the upstart Oilers.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, they lost the Stanley Cup Final by a 4-1 series mark, but the foundation of a solid team was in place. Zezel, however, had a solid playoff run as a rookie, notching one goal and adding eight helpers in 19 playoff games. Zezel's first season had to be considered a success despite losing hockey's biggest prize at the end.

Zezel's production dipped in 1985-86 as he only put up 17 goals and 37 assists, but the 1986-87 season was his finest. Zezel scored 33 goals and added 39 assists for 72 points, and the Flyers re-established themselves as one of the favorites in the Wales Conference. They went 46-26-8 for first place in the Patrick Division, and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final by defeating the Rangers 4-2, the Islanders 4-3, and the Montreal Canadiens 4-2. They ran into the juggernaut of the 1980s in the Oilers again, and nearly pulled off the upset. However, the Oilers prevailed with a 4-3 series win.

1986 was also a break-out season on the big screen as Zezel scored a small part in the Hollywood film Youngblood, starring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. Zezel played "Rossini", a player for the Hamilton Mustangs. Zezel is the shirtless guy in the picture.

Zezel's first few seasons in the NHL were extremely productive and successful, but 1988 saw his first professional move as he was traded mid-season by the Flyers to the St. Louis Blues for Mike Bullard. Zezel continued a great season between the two teams, ending the campaign with 21 goals and 49 assists. Zezel's game, however, was changing as he was physically slowing down.

In 1990, he was dealt from the Blues to the Washington Capitals for Geoff Courtnall. However, he barely had time to unpack his luggage. After only 20 games in DC, he was traded to his hometown Maple Leafs in a package for Al Iafrate - the dream was fulfilled! He was hampered by injuries, however, and only played a total of 52 games while only scoring 40 points.

1991-92 in the blue-and-white was another injury-filled one for Zezel as he only appeared in 64 games. However, with his scoring production falling off, Zezel had begun transitioning his game into a specialist's role as he embraced a defensive role and really started working on faceoffs. With his soccer abilities, he was able to win a large number of draws as he controlled the puck with his feet when his stick was tied up. As a result, the Leafs began using him in all key faceoff situations as well as against the opposition's top line.

1992-93 saw the Leafs, with Zezel in the lineup, fight and scratch their way up the Norris Division standings, and they turned that into a magical playoff run. Toronto finished behind Chicago and Detroit in the Norris, but head coach Pat Burns had them playing great hockey upon the start of the "second season". Burns exclusively used Zezel in a defensive role this season, and he excelled in defensive coverage and in the faceoff circle. They defeated Detroit in seven games, and need seven games to eliminate St. Louis as well. Like the other teams that Zezel had been a big part of, they were knocked out of the playoffs by a Gretzky-led team. The Los Angeles Kings needed seven games, but eliminated the Maple Leafs at the end of the series.

Back problems plagued Zezel's season in 1993-94, and he was limited to 41 games. He appeared in 18 playoff games for the Leafs that season, and scored the Game One winner in the Western Conference Final against the Canucks - the only game the Leafs would win in that series.

In a strange series of events, Zezel was awarded as compensation to the Dallas Stars after the Toronto Maple Leafs signed free agent Mike Craig in the summer of 1994. However, a knee injury derailed Zezel's season, and he was limited to just 30 games and 11 points. It proved to be a tumultuous move as Zezel played only 30 games in two years with the 1995 NHL strike.

At the end of the strike, Zezel was signed by Mike Keenan as Keenan took over the St. Louis Blues. Zezel's time in St. Louis was limited as he battled injuries and poor play for parts of two seasons. Midway through the 1996-97 season, Zezel was traded to the New Jersey Devils.

Zezel's career really nose-dived in New Jersey as he was sent to the minors for the first time in his career. However, Zezel showed that he was still a savvy veteran who could contribute as he racked up 50 points in 35 games for the AHL's Albany River Rats. Again, he was traded for by Mike Keenan, this time with the Vancouver Canucks, and he was back in the NHL playing alongside Alexander Mogilny. Mogilny needed a playmaking centerman, and Zezel was Keenan's man for the job. Zezel didn't disappoint either as he put up 17 points in 25 games.

Zezel's career, however, would end controversially in 1999 when Vancouver GM Brian Burke traded him at the deadline. Zezel's niece, three year-old Jilliann, had been diagnosed with cancer, and she was terminally-ill. Zezel had indicated that he would like to be closer to his family during their time of need, but had not demanded a trade. Incredibly, Burke traded him to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Afterwards, assistant GM Dave Nonis stated to Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Times that the move "was not a sinister plot to screw Peter Zezel. It's a guy we're not going to have any use for at the end of the year and we tried to find a place for him to play". Zezel promptly retired from the NHL, and Burke received some criticism from the public and media for his unfathomable move in regards to Zezel's request. However, Burke did offer to buyout Zezel's contract and match the amount with a charitable donation.

Zezel didn't stop with hockey there, though. Since 1998, he operated the Peter Zezel Hockey and Sports Camps in Etobicoke, Ontario. The camp is a hockey and soccer camp for children between the ages of 5 and 14.

From his website: "The camps started in 1998 and have been a great success ever since. The purpose of the camps is to create an environment conducive to learning without sacrificing the enjoyment of participating in a camp. Hundreds of kids from age 5 to 14 years have attended the camps and had a great deal of fun while improving their hockey and soccer skills.

After Peter's sixteen year career in the NHL he wanted to pursue opportunities to help with the development of young athletes. The hockey & soccer camps allow him to contribute in a way that is very important to him. Peter has taken the knowledge and skills he has learned during the career and applied them to the camp to create an outstanding experience for participants."

At age 44, however, we've lost Peter Zezel. The man was a fabulous NHL player, and really cared about the community.

"The hockey community has suffered a great loss today," said NHLPA director of player affairs, Glenn Healy, in a statement. "Peter was a friend and a great family man who was well liked by everyone he crossed paths with in our game. Our thoughts are with Peter's family and many friends during this difficult time."

My thoughts, prayers, and wishes are with the Zezel family in their time of mourning. Peter Zezel may not have been the prototypical, flashy NHL scorer, but he touched enough lives to change the world for the better.

And that's the best assist that anyone can give. Rest in peace, Mr. Zezel. You're a star in this writer's eyes.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


TheMetalChick said...

Wow. What a good guy. I didnt really know who he was, and now I see what was lost. My condolences to his family and all of his fans.

Teebz said...

I agree. Sometimes we never hear about the good all the players do after they leave the spotlight. Zezel was a true community guy.

Great comment, MetalChick. :o)

Anonymous said...

IN addition to playing a role in Youngblood...whenever you see Youngblood skating (when you can't see Rob Lowe's face) it's Zezel. He was the skating double for Lowe.