With his movie star looks, gregarious personality and stellar two-way play, Peter Zezel was a popular player with Mike Keenan’s youthful Philadelphia Flyers teams of the 1980s. Later, Zezel would go on to earn accolades with the St. Louis Blues and would help lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to their best post-season performances in the modern era.
But despite this success, Zezel’s legacy will always be his decision to choose humanity over hockey in the face of a cruel betrayal by hockey management. This is the inspirational -- and ultimately heartbreaking -- story of Peter Zezel -- a man whose tremendous talent was surpassed only by his generous soul.
Peter Zezel was an outstanding two-sport athlete, excelling in both hockey and soccer, during his upbringing in Scarborough, Ontario. Peter was a member of the Canadian national Under-20 soccer team and played in three exhibition games for the NASL's Toronto Blizzard and later played one season for the North York Rockets of the CSL during the NHL offseason. Peter noted that he was an even better soccer player than hockey player
Peter was chosen by the Flyers in round 2 of the 1983 NHL Draft after posting 47 goals and 133 points for the OHL's Toronto Marlies during the 1983-84 campaign. The following year, he established himself as a regular for a Flyers team that posted the best regular season record in the NHL and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
A year later, Zezel's celebrity grew when he landed a small role in the hockey-themed Rob Lowe movie, Youngblood.
In 1986-87, Peter continued to progress with a career-high with 33 goals and 72 points. He also had a strong playoff as a checking forward, scoring 3 goals and 13 points in a 25 game run that saw the Flyers push the mighty Edmonton Oilers to 7 games in one of the greatest Stanley Cup finals ever. That year, Zezel also earned a pair of first-place votes for the Selke Trophy, NHL's award for the league's top defensive forward.
Journalist and Flyers historian Bill Meltzer remembers Zezel as “a big kid at heart, Zezel loved to have a good time and joke around. He was also very soft-hearted and generous. Zezel was especially good with kids and donated considerable time -- with no publicity attached to it -- to visiting children's hospitals, and staying in touch with the families of seriously ill children. He also supported youth sports and would arrange donations of equipment for those whose families could not afford for them to play.”
On the ice, however, Zezel and the Flyers began to struggle.
After getting off to a slow start in 1988-89, Peter was dealt to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Mike Bullard. Zezel quickly found a home with Brett Hull on his right wing and he finished strongly, collecting a career-high 49 assists that season. In 1989-90, he tied his career-best 72 points in 73 games and helped Hull rack up 72 goals.
But Zezel would score just one goal in 13 playoff games and on July 13, 1990, he was traded with Mike Lalor to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Geoff Courtnall. After a brief an injury plagued stint with the Caps, he was traded with Bob Rouse to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for Al Iafrate.
With Toronto and the teams that followed, Zezel settled into the role of a defensive-minded center and reliable faceoff man. The Leafs had some great success during Zezel’s stay, including a coming one game away from the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. Zezel was a big hit with Leaf fans and was well respected among his teammates
In the mid-90s, Zezel bounced around from the Dallas Stars, back to the Blues and then the New Jersey Devils before being acquired by the Vancouver Canucks in February 1998. In Vancouver, Zezel would reunite with Mike Keenan and played an important role with the Canucks. However, when Brian Burke took the reins as Canucks GM Keenan was eventually fired and Zezel’s role was greatly reduced.
In January 1999, Zezel was injured and took leave from the Canucks to accompany Jillian and her family on a trip to Disney World. In March 1999, Zezel asked Burke to either let him finish the season in Vancouver or trade him to an east coast team so he could be close to Jillian, who did not have long to live.
Burke’s response was to trade Zezel to the west coast and the Anaheim Ducks -- the location furthest away from Jillian. Zezel retired rather than report and returned home to Scarborough to be with Jillian and her family.
At first, an angry Burke threatened to suspend Zezel, but after a public outcry, the deal was voided. The Canucks -- clearly embarrassed by Burke’s insensitivity -- bought out Peter’s contract and donated $110,000 to the Canucks Foundation for terminally ill children.
“Jillian is a great kid and a special kid” said Peter, who was never married and had no children of his own. “If I didn’t come home now, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”
Jillian passed away peacefully a few weeks after Peter’s arrival. Zezel never returned to the NHL, opting to be with his family in Ontario. He played senior hockey in Ontario and coached youth hockey and soccer and ran a hockey school in Toronto.
Tragically, in 2001 Zezel himself fell ill, and was diagnosed with the rare and incurable blood disorder that destroys red blood cells faster than the body can replace them.
He battled this energy-sapping disease for several years, taking chemotherapy and even having his spleen removed. All the while he tried his best to keep up his sports camps. Unaware of his situation, many fans were shocked to see that the heavily medicated Zezel had become bloated and obese
May 26, 2009, his organs began to fail. He lapsed into a coma, was taken off life support and passed away. Peter Zezel was just 44 years old. He was laid to rest at Pine Hills Cemetery Scarborough.
In 2014, Friends and NHL teammates Wendel Clark and Mark Osbourne, helped the city of Scarborough honor Zezel at a street-naming ceremony in his honor.