Though his time with the Albany River Rats was brief, the impact
Peter Zezel made on those around him was not.
Hospitalized in his hometown of Toronto last week, Zezel died Tuesday night of complications from hemolytic anemia, a rare and incurable blood disorder. He was 44.
On Wednesday, Zezel was remembered as a gifted, loyal and compassionate teammate and friend.
“He do anything for anybody; all you had to do was ask,” Rats assistant coach Geordie Kinnear said. “Most of the time, you didn’t even have to ask.”
Kinnear skated with Zezel in Albany during the 1997-98 season. Already a veteran of more than 800 NHL games, Zezel was assigned to the New Jersey Devils farm team while the parent club worked on a trade.
“When he got sent down, he never pouted or did anything negative,” Kinnear said. “The guy was unbelievable. He wanted to give all the time. He was on an NHL salary, so we had sushi on the bus more often than not.”
Zezel wound up playing 35 games for Albany, scoring 13 goals and 50 points before being dealt to the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 5, 1998.
As part of the trade, Zezel made it clear that he would honor his commitment to represent the Rats in the AHL All-Star Game in Syracuse, which took place six days later.
He scored twice, including the winning goal, and was named MVP, dedicating it to his ill 2-year-old niece in Toronto, Jilliann Carter. Fifteen months later, Carter died of cancer.
“I played in that all-star game with him. Me and Jay [Pandolfo] and him were roommates,” Kinnear said. “What a wrist shot he had, my God. He was unbelievable. Great on faceoffs. Just a great player and a great person that is going to be missed by a lot of people.”
The 1997-98 Rats were led by late head coach John Cunniff and his assistant, Dennis ‘Red’ Gendron, who is now an assistant coach at UMass-Amherst. More than a dozen players from that Albany team went on to NHL careers.
“Reading some of the comments about Zez, they describe him as a real professional, a generous man and a really great guy,” Gendron said. “He was all of that in Albany.
“He gave a lot to the young players that were there, not only by what he said, but by how he carried himself all the time. He would talk to them about what they needed to do to make it to the NHL and how hard they had to work, and then he would show them by his own actions.
“He was on the ice early. He would stay late. He was just a consummate professional. For a guy who hardly played a day in the minor leagues, to all of a sudden get sent down to Albany, he had two choices: make the best of it or whine and be a pain in the butt or even not report. Peter Zezel took the high road. He was just great. He was a positive influence on
Zezel returned to Toronto after the 1997-98 NHL regular season, and surprised the Rats with a visit after Game 3 of their division final series in nearby Hamilton, taking the entire team out to dinner.
Albany swept the Bulldogs before losing to Philadelphia in the Calder Cup semis.
“That was awesome. He was a great guy,” Hershey Bears captain and defenseman Bryan Helmer said. The 1997-98 season was Helmer’s fifth and last with the Rats.
“It’s sad. I was telling the guys today that when I played with him, he was unbelievable. He had been in the NHL for so long, and for him to come to our team and play as hard as he did, it was amazing.
“I remember totally looking up to him. That was the year I had my best year in Albany, and a lot of it was because of him. He was so good on faceoffs. We knew he was going to win the draw every time.”
Drafted 41st overall by Philadelphia in 1983, Zezel was 19 when he broke into the NHL with the Flyers in 1984-85, helping them reach the Stanley Cup finals.
His talent and good looks earned him a small role in the 1986 hockey movie “Youngblood,” starring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. Zezel retired following the 1998-99 season after scoring 219 goals and 608 points in 873 NHL games for Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington, Toronto, Dallas, New Jersey and Vancouver.
The funeral for Zezel, who was single and had no children,will be held Friday in Mississauga, Ontario. He donated his organs through the Trillium Gift of Life Network.
“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. “We would like to thank all of Peter’s friends and family for their support and we ask for privacy during this difficult time.”