Peter Zezel: 'Hockey player' in the best sense

Warning: Sentimentality-heavy post follows...

Zezel-sketch_medium

My first hockey drawing, inspired by a photo that accompanied this SI article.

In the past year, I've lost two former colleagues and one professor, each of them very dear and influential, and two of them not yet 50 years old. So when I learned that Peter Zezel died at the obscenely young age of 44, it sent one more "Ye gods, mortality!" jolt of reality through me. It also reminded me of the above hilariously poor drawing, which I hadn't thought of in years -- but which I kept in the "innocent childhood years stash" for sentimental reasons.

By paternal guidance and whim, I was both a Blues and Islanders fan from the moment I remember following hockey. (Here's another example of my childhood losing battles with art perspective -- not sure why I put Alan Kerr's jersey on Derek King's body there, either ... I remember sometimes finding wild mushrooms in the yard).

While I consequently "hated" the Flyers, there were a few Flyers I had reluctant respect for because they just seemed to do their job despite the tyrant behind the bench: Ron Sutter (for obvious hockey royal family reasons), Zezel and Scott Mellanby (probably because their youth meant a short list of offenses), and Pelle Lindbergh come to mind.

Like many young hockey fans, I had to try my hand at drawing the sport while not paying attention in math class. The above was one of my first, inspired by a photo that went with a Sports Illustrated article of the same title (although in my glee at the Flyers' struggles, I had to add a couple of "LOW"s and even a "sea level" marker for emphasis).

Just under a year after that SI article ran, Zezel was dealt to St. Louis, replacing and taking the #9 of my favorite Blue Doug Gilmour (after the brief Mike Bullard experiment failed), and giving me my first taste of a hated team's player suddenly joining "my side." He fit in quickly: Before Adam Oates arrived, Zezel was Brett Hull's frequent center, which helped people realize just how massive a scorer Hull could be.

Partly due to his good looks (my, how the girls swooned), partly due to his hustle and legendary soccer-influenced faceoff acumen, and partly due to him fitting much better than Bullard, Zezel became an immediate fan favorite. I'm telling you, with the amount St. Louis girls melted for him, you'd never believe Zezel was only there for two seasons [note: Mike Keenan brought him back for parts of two more in the mid-'90s] -- but apparently he had this same effect in Philadelphia and at least one other stop along the way. He became a fan favorite in Toronto, where he did his part to hurt the Blues in a few Norris Division battles. But I couldn't hold those years against him; he was a hard opponent to dislike.

Anyway, I bring all this up not for pure sentimentality and not to hawk kid art fit for Web mocking. It just strikes me, in reading fan and journalist memories of Zezel, how much of an effect one not-very-prolific hockey player had on fans, teammates and reporters. Check the eulogy at Pension Plan Puppets -- both PPP's thoughts and so many of the comments -- for a taste of his impact.

As I've gotten older and lost friends and mentors at that too-young age that stops you in your tracks ("He's ... dead...? Does not compute."), I increasingly appreciate that diversions like this silly sport aren't worth your time unless you can truly harvest the joy from them and see their human side when it reveals itself. Recalling my Zezel drawing and reading the tributes to him reminds me of how these pro athletes, at their best, can positively affect boys and girls in ways they'd never imagine: from who helped you at hockey camp to who you dropped from your NHL '95 roster to who was the subject for your first hockey drawing.

Hockey fans crow -- probably a little too much so -- about how their pro athletes are particularly generous and down to earth. But by all accounts, guys like Zezel are why that impression exists. (While everyone is human and flaws abound, it's interesting that many reporters echo that sentiment).

For every "selfish millionaire punk" playing this sport, there is a Peter Zezel -- a generous human, a valued teammate, a helper for kid and adult players alike, a family-before-career guy, even an organ donor when fate took his life way too soon. When something infuriates me on or off the ice, I try to remember that.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Peter Zezel’s name to the James Birrell Fund at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The checks should be made payable to "The James Fund" and can be mailed to:

The James Fund
625 Whitaker Street #4
Peterborough, ON
K9H 7L5
Canada

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