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.