Remember Peter Zezel? I remember him as the checking line centre that helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to back-to-back Conference Finals in 1993 and 1994 with his strong defensive abilities and face-off skills.
Those were the years that made me a Toronto Maple Leafs fan when I was a kid. Zezel was born and raise in Toronto and produced great point totals while with the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros. He was drafted in the 2nd round (41st overall) by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft mostly for his offensive abilities.
At the age of 19, Peter Zezel joined the Flyers and finished fifth in NHL rookie scoring with 60 points in 65 games. He also set a Flyers rookie record with 46 assists, but his record was beaten by Pelle Eklund the next season with 51 rookie assists which still stands as the current record. (All stats from Hockey-Reference.com)
His best offensive stats came in 1986-87, his third NHL season with the Flyers, where he scored 33 goals and 72 points in 71 games. His clutch abilities also shone that season as he was ranked sixth in the league with seven game winning goals.
In 1988, Peter Zezel was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Mike Bullard. That season, Peter Zezel led the Blues with 6 goals and 12 points in 10 play-off games.
Peter Zezel continued to contribute as a two-way player for the Blues and matched his career high with 72 points in 73 games during the 1989-90 season.
In 1990, Zezel was traded with Mike Lalor to the Washington Capitals for Geoff Courtnall. He would only play 20 games with the Capitals before he was traded to his hometown, Toronto Maple Leafs with Bob Rouse for Al Iafrate.
Peter Zezel and the Toronto Maple Leafs
Peter Zezel suffered many injuries and never played a full NHL season during his 15 year NHL career. During the 1990-91 season, he only appeared in 52 games split between the Capitals and Maple Leafs, but he managed to score 21 goals and 40 points.
When Pat Burns came to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1992, he gave Peter Zezel the role of a strict third line checking centre. His offensive production was stunted, but his defensive contribution to the team was more valuable.
Zezel became the Leafs shutdown centre during the 1993 and 1994 playoffs. He also scored the game winning overtime goal during Game 1 of the 1994 Western Conference finals against the Vancouver Canucks.
His injuries continued to plague him during the 1993-94 season as Zezel ruptured a disc while taking a shot during a pre-game warm up and missed half the season.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed former Dallas Stars restricted free agent, Mike Craig, in the summer of 1994, they were forced to give up Peter Zezel as compensation.
Peter Zezel after the Toronto Maple Leafs
Injuries continued to take their toll as Peter Zezel on played 30 games with the Dallas Stars after he suffered a knee injury. He signed back with the St. Louis Blues the next summer to reunite with his former Philadelphia Flyers coach, Mike Keenan.
In 1997, Peter Zezel was traded to the New Jersey Devils for a 9th round pick and Chris McAlpine. Zezel was sent to the AHL the next season for the first time in his career.
While with the AHL’s Albany River Rats, Zezel revived his offensive skill set and pilled up 50 points in 35 games. This caught the eye of Mike Keenan who was then coaching the Vancouver Canucks and requested a trade for Zezel.
The Canucks acquired Zezel for a 5th round pick, and he finished the 1997-98 season in an offensive role centring superstar Alexander Mogilny and recording 17 points in 25 games.
Peter Zezel’s return to Toronto
Prior to the 1999 NHL Trade Deadline, Peter Zezel knew the Canucks would be deadline sellers and asked Vancouver Canucks GM, Brian Burke, to trade him to an Eastern Conference team so he could be closer to his niece in Toronto who had terminal cancer. Instead, Burke traded Zezel to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who are one of the furthest teams from Toronto.
Instead of reporting to the Ducks, Peter Zezel retired from the NHL and went back home to Toronto to be with his family. Brian Burke and the Canucks were heavily criticized by fans and the media and decided to buy out the remaining $110,000 of Zezel’s contract and donated another $100,000 to a charity for terminally ill children.
In 1998, Zezel started the Peter Zezel Hockey and Sports Camps to help children improve their hockey and soccer skills. Zezel was a skilled soccer player and played in the National Soccer League and Canadian Soccer League in the 80’s and 90’s.
In 2001, Peter Zezel suffered from complications of a rare blood disorder, hemolytic anemia. He nearly died in 2001 but didn’t know of the disorder until 2009. Zezel complained about severe headaches 12 hours after surgery to remove his spleen and went under the knife again where surgeons found hemorrhaging in his brain. Zezel slipped into a coma and was put on life support.
Zezel wanted to donate his organs, so his family made the difficult decision to take him off of life support to honour his wishes. Peter Zezel died on May 26, 2009 at the age of 44.
In 2014, a street in Scarborough (a district of Toronto) was named Zezel Way in honour of Peter Zezel.