TORONTO - Peter Zezel, a gritty NHL centre who became known for his strong two-way game over 15 NHL seasons, died Tuesday. He was 44.
Zezel had reportedly struggled on and off with a rare and serious blood disease called hemolytic anemia the past 10 years, and had been in critical condition in 2001.
A Toronto newspaper reported that he was admitted to hospital last week for scheduled surgery, but complications developed and his condition worsened.
Zezel was born in Toronto and played junior hockey with the Toronto Marlies before the Philadelphia Flyers chose him 41st overall in the 1983 NHL draft.
A statement from Toronto Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke called Zezel a "consummate professional" who always carried himself with class.
Former teammate and Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni board member Mark Osborne called Zezel "the ultimate caring friend and teammate."
Zezel scored a career-best 33 goals in 1986-87 for the Flyers and recorded a combined 49 assists for Philadelphia and St. Louis in 1988-89 after he was traded to the Blues for Mike Bullard.
Zezel helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a pair of conference final runs in 1993 and '94 and later spent a couple of seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.
In 873 NHL games with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, Toronto, Dallas, New Jersey and Vancouver, he scored 219 goals with 389 assists and was a plus-39.
Following his NHL career, Zezel remained active in the hockey community, running a successful hockey school and coaching in the Greater Toronto Hockey League with the Don Mills Hockey Association.
Zezel was also an active member of the NHL Alumni Association and completed countless hours of charitable work during and following his hockey career.
"Peter will forever be remembered as a great teammate and a wonderful individual who touched the lives of many both on and off the ice," the family said in a statement.
"In his typical character of generosity, Peter donated his organs through the Trillium Gift of Life Network."
Glenn Healy, the NHLPA director of player affairs, said Zezel's death is a "great loss."
"Peter was a friend and a great family man who was well liked by everyone he crossed paths with in our game."
Later, the Vancouver Canucks organization issued a statement offering its "deepest sympathies" to the Zezel family.
"Peter was a dedicated professional and a valued member of our organization during his time in Vancouver," said the Canuck statement. "He will be deeply missed by his family and friends."
It is with deep sadness that the Toronto Maple Leafs learned of the passing of former player Peter Zezel, who passed away due to illness earlier today. Peter Zezel was 44 years old.