Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Remembering Peter Zezel

Terrible news today, as Peter Zezel has lost his long battle with a rare blood disorder. Zezel passed away today at the age of 44.

Zezel played for seven teams in his NHL career, and was one of my favorite Leafs from the 1993 and 1994 teams. While he never put up much in the way of offensive numbers in Toronto, he was a tenacious worker and defensive specialist. Together with Bill Berg and Mark Osborne, Zezel formed arguably the best checking line the Leafs have ever had. Zezel was the best defensive center on those Leafs squads, which is saying something considering those teams also featured a Selke nominee in Doug Gilmour.

During the Leafs' deep playoff runs in 1993 and 1994, Zezel took just about every important defensive zone faceoff. While I don't have the stats in front of me, I'm fairly sure that he won 100% of them, despite never touching the puck with his stick. Zezel was the master of tying up an opponent and then working the puck backwards with his skates, not surprising given his talent for soccer (at one point during his Leafs stint he also played for the North York Rockets, making him one of the few Canadian athletes to play two different sports professionally).

While the Wendel Clark trade was the big off-season news of 1994, the loss of role players like Zezel and Bob Rouse did almost as much to spell the end of that Leaf team's run as a contender. Fifteen years later, the Leafs still haven't found a player to fill Zezel's faceoff specialist/defensive center role.

Other random memories:

  • His appearance in "Youngblood". Seriously, he's was in there. Even has his own IMDB page.

  • His thick neck, combined with a hunched over skating style, which made him the easiest Leafs player to impersonate. If you were a kid who played road hockey in the early 90s and you didn't get to be Wendel or Dougie, you could count on a laugh if you declared yourself Peter Zezel and then played a shift with your ears between your shoulders.

  • His key role in the Leafs elaborate pre-game ritual which would see the entire team gather around Felix Potvin's crease to offer the goaltender glove and stick taps. As each player left the crease they'd bang fists with Zezel, who stood twitching nearby until he was the last player remaining. At that point, he'd charge in a deliver a two-handed slash to Potvin's pads before sprinting off the ice. I always liked to imagine that the mild-mannered Potvin had absolutely no say in the conception of this ritual.
Send out some good thoughts to Peter Zezel and his family today.


  1. Deeply saddened by the news, beginning with the HNIC broadcast this past Saturday.

    My thoughts are with the Zezel family.

  2. I think when most Leafs fans think back to those two special runs in 93 and 94, they think of Peter Zezel. And rightfully so. He represented the Leafs with pride.

    He'll be missed. Sending good vibes out to the Zezel family tonight.

  3. We remember Peter Zezel when he played with the Leafs. Classy guy and great hockey player.

    He will be truly missed and this is really a sad day.

    Our hearts go out to the Zezel family today.

  4. Terribly sad news. I remember Peter Zezel like he was still playing yesterday. One of the most underrated players of all-time. I will never forget him.

  5. Though I had watched hockey semi-often before, '92/93 was the season I really started to understand the game at a tactical level (I was born in 1986). While I had obviously taken notice of Dougie's production and Wendel's, well, Wendelness, I have distinct memories of my dad - seeing a burgeoning mind just starting to develop a deeper appreciation for the game than is served in highlight reels - telling me to keep an eye on #25. I'm glad I did.

    Over the next couple of years, Peter Zezel would continue to inspire an appreciation for defensively responsible hockey that frames my perspective on the game to this day. With the exception of Wendel Clark, it's safe to say that looking back, Zezel has contributed more to my development as a hockey enthusiast than any other player. The soft spot I always end up with for players like Alyn McCauley and Tom Fitzgerald is easily attributable to my early affinity for watching Peter Zezel deny other teams' most productive players the opportunity to dictate the flow of the game.

    I always find it odd when people are saddened on a personal level by the deaths of athletes and entertainers they've never met, but this news gives me some understanding of the sentiment. The hockey world is surely a poorer place today than it was yesterday.

  6. I'm pretty sure that Peter Zezel is the best and most popular third line centre in Leaf history. And you're absolutely right that the departure of him, Rouse, Clark, and Lefebvre tore too much of the heart out of that team. Why/how did they let him go, anyway? Regardless, he and his glorious mullet will certainly be missed.

    Oh, and I hate to be one of these guys, but I'm pretty sure Gilmour wasn't merely a Selke finalist, but an actual winner of the underrated award.

  7. Oh, and another thing I remember about Zezel and that famous checking line is the way, at least in my memory, they were the starting line for pretty well every game (someone correct me on this if I'm wrong). I'm actually surprised more teams don't start games with their checking lines.

  8. Well done DGB.

    What can you say about Zezz? As underrated as they come. Tough, skilled, and disciplined. Put his ego aside, took any role his team asked of him and got the job done. With all the heroes born from those epic playoff runs, this guy is RIGHT UP THERE with 17 and 93 if you ask me.

    A few days after losing out to LA in 93 my friend and I ran into him at the Woodbine Centre. I remember calling him "Mr. Zezel" and repeating "I loved you in the playoffs man...you were a warrior" like 3 times. He smiled, laughed and thanked me each time. He then shook our hands and invited us out for some shinny at Westwood.

    Even though trading away Wendel in his prime triggered a slow descent into madness I'm only now starting to come to terms with, at least from a backwards crazyperson perspective that deal almost made sense. Losing Zezel as compensation for Mike Craig was just complete fucking idiocy. We lost a lot of heart that summer, a lot of intangibles that have yet to be replaced.

    RIP Mr. Zezel, here's to you still winning those crucial draws somewhere.

  9. Thanks everyone for sharing their memories.

    @Pal Hal... The Leafs lost Zezel and Grant Marshall as compensation for the horrible signing of Mike Craig away from the stars. Craig was supposed to be an up-and-coming young player. Not only was he not anywhere near the player Zezel was, but he turned out not to be the prospect that Marshall was either.

  10. That is a brutal deal. Makes you wonder, has Cliff Fletcher ever made a deal that wasn't either really good or really terrible?

  11. Just think, the Stars were asking for Kenny Jonsson as compensation for Craig. Who would we have traded to reacquire Wendel? Zezel will be missed...

  12. RIP Zez

    He was a Toronto boy to the heart.

  13. I am shocked and saddened by the sudden and premature passing of Peter Zezel. He was a skilled player and a real credit to the game of hockey. While hemolytic anemia took his life, the anemia also died with him, so he really didn't lose this final match- it ended in a draw.
    Rest in peace, Peter. You will be missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

  14. I was at that game in '94 - the only game the Leafs won in their playoff series against Vancouver that year.

    Quite the celebration when Zezel scored in OT to tie the series at 1-1 at that point.

    Thanks for the memories Zez, you won't be forgotten.