TORONTO (AP) -Peter Zezel, a center who played 15 NHL seasons after breaking into the league as a teenager with the Philadelphia Flyers, has died. He was 44.
Zezel struggled with the rare blood disease hemolytic anemia for the past 10 years and died on Tuesday. Zezel suffered from the ailment off and on, but had rebounded after being in critical condition in 2001.
He was admitted to the hospital last week for scheduled surgery, but complications developed and his conditioned worsened.
"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," Zezel's family said in a statement released by the National Hockey League Players' Association. "In his typical character of generosity, Peter donated his organs through the Trillium Gift of Life Network."
The gritty center was known on the ice for his strong two-way game. In 873 NHL games with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, Toronto, Dallas, New Jersey and Vancouver, Zezel had 219 goals and 389 assists.
His matinee idol looks also earned him a small role in the 1986 hockey-based movie "Youngblood" that starred Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze.
Zezel was born in Toronto and played junior hockey with the Toronto Marlies before the Flyers chose him with the 41st pick in the 1983 draft. He made his NHL debut in 1984 when he was 19.
"I'm personally very, very sad today with the news of Peter's passing," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. "I spoke to him last week when I first learned he was having problems. He was hopeful, as was I, and all of those who loved him. Peter was a good friend of mine and this is a real tragedy.
"He was a wonderful young man and a great member of the Flyers organization. We are all saddened by his passing."
Zezel scored a career-best 33 goals in the 1986-87 season for the Flyers and recorded a combined 49 assists for Philadelphia and St. Louis in the 1988-89 campaign.
"Peter was the ultimate caring friend and teammate," Toronto Maple Leafs alumni board member Mark Osborne said. "He was so dedicated to his family and friends and he would always freely give of his time and energies to help someone else.
"He was truly a passionate and loyal friend both on and off the ice. Our hockey family is devastated."
Zezel helped the Maple Leafs to a pair of conference final runs in 1993 and '94 and later spent a couple of seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.
"He was the consummate professional and he always carried himself with great class as a human being," Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. "Peter will be greatly missed."
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.
"Peter was a dedicated professional and a valued member of our organization during his time in Vancouver," the Canucks said in a statement. "He will be deeply missed by his family and friends."
Zezel was also an active member of the NHL Alumni Association and completed countless hours of charitable work during and following his hockey career.
Instead of flowers, Zezel's family asked that donations be made in his name to the James Birrell Fund at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"The hockey community has suffered a great loss," said Glenn Healy, a former goalie who is now the NHLPA director of player affairs. "Peter was a friend and a great family man who was well liked by everyone he crossed paths with in our game."
Plans for a memorial service weren't immediately announced.