As a hockey player, Peter Zezel was expert at taking what was given him and making the best of it. He did the same thing later in his life when he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder.
Zezel died in a Toronto hospital after being admitted last week when his condition, hemolytic anemia, flared up. He was 44.
Zezel was a defensive stalwart of the Maple Leafs 1993 and 1994 final four teams. An offensive player when he reached Toronto in 1991, (Zezel once scored 33 goals with the Philadelphia Flyers) he immediately adapted to Pat Burns’ demand that he put most of his energy into the defensive part of the game.
Powerfully built with a low sense of gravity, Zezel became an esteemed checker and, thanks to a background in soccer, a force in the face-off circle.
Zezel scored 50-regular season goals as a Leaf but it was his ability to adapt to the defensive game that kept him in the league for 15 years.
“When you look at guys who make the NHL, it’s often about that little extra,” said former Leaf Steve Thomas who played with Zezel when the two were 17-year-old members of the Toronto Marlies. “Peter was one of those guys who was never satisfied with the way he was playing. He always wanted to be a little better.”
Zezel would end up playing on seven teams. A Toronto native, he retired to the city in 1999 and ran a series of hockey and sports camps.
He almost died of his blood condition in 2001 and the medication that kept him alive made him gain a tremendous amount of weight.
Thomas said the physical effects of the medication bothered Zezel. “As a professional athlete, he was aware of what people saw. I think Peter was self-conscious about it and I know a lot of times I told people that the weight was a side-effect of the drugs.”
What Thomas remembers is a kind-hearted competitor.
“I know he told his Mom that he was satisfied with his life, that he had no regrets. He was just a great, great guy. Everyone will miss not having him around.”