Paul Holmgren was in Toronto yesterday on a scouting trip when he heard the heartrending news that popular former Flyer Peter Zezel lay near death at a hospital in the city.
"The last time I talked to him, I knew something was really wrong," the Flyers' general manager said. "But still, the news today is really tragic. For a young man . . ."
About an hour after Holmgren spoke with The Inquirer, Mr. Zezel's death was announced. He was 44.
According to Toronto newspapers and the Associated Press, nearly 10 years ago, Mr. Zezel was found to have a rare blood disorder called hemolytic anemia. The disease destroys red blood cells faster than the body can replace them.
Last week, the Toronto Star reported, Mr. Zezel went into a Toronto hospital for chemotherapy and also had his spleen removed. After the surgery, he complained of severe headaches, which led to further surgery. His organs began to fail, he lapsed into a coma, and he was put on, then taken off, life support. He died about 6:30 last night.
"I'm personally very, very sad today with the news of Peter's passing," Flyers chairman Ed Snider said in a statement released by the team. "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, and we want to send our condolences to his loved ones."
Holmgren said members of the Flyers' family were aware that Mr. Zezel had been fighting a serious blood disease. But still, the news hit hard.
"He always had a smile on his face," Holmgren said. "He was a breath of fresh air as a player. Being here [in Toronto], this is really a dark cloud hanging over everything."
Mr. Zezel was born in Toronto and played junior hockey for the now-defunct Toronto Marlies at Maple Leaf Gardens.
He was chosen by the Flyers in the second round of the 1983 draft. A center, he set a Flyers rookie assist record with 46 points on his way to a 61-point season in 1984-85.
After Mr. Zezel played in two Stanley Cup Finals (1984-85, 1986-87) for them, the Flyers traded him to the St. Louis Blues for Mike Bullard on Nov. 29, 1988.
Mr. Zezel also played for Washington, Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis a second time, New Jersey and Vancouver. His 15-season totals (873 games) were 219 goals, 389 assists, and 608 points.
"Peter was really a strong face-off guy," said Holmgren, who was an assistant under Mike Keenan when Mr. Zezel joined the Flyers. "He had good size [5-foot-11, 220 pounds] and he was a very good playmaker. Early in his career, he was very good on the power play, especially working with Timmy Kerr. Now this. It's tragic. Really tragic."
Kerr set an NHL record with four goals in one period, three on the power play, on April 13, 1985, against the Rangers in New York. He also set the NHL single-season record for power-play goals with 34 in the 1985–86 season. Mr. Zezel played alongside him much of the time.
Mr. Zezel had his best season in 1986–87, setting career highs with 33 goals and 72 points even though he missed nine games with various injuries.
That team made the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Edmonton Oilers dynasty in seven games.
Mr. Zezel retired at the trade deadline in 1999, when Vancouver sent him to the Anaheim Ducks. Mr. Zezel, whose niece, Jillian, was terminally ill with cancer in Toronto, retired rather than move to California.
Hugely popular with Maple Leafs fans during his playing days, Mr. Zezel remained visible around Toronto, coaching in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and running hockey and soccer camps in suburban Markham.
He was not married and had no children.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.