WHEN THE terrible news about Peter Zezel began to break here yesterday afternoon, it was hard for your mind not to wander. Zezel died yesterday from a rare blood disorder at the age of 44. He hadn't played for the Flyers in 2 decades and, no, it does not seem like yesterday - but he was a meaningful player at a meaningful time, one of the faces of an era.

You go back and look at the players on the roster and, my God, they were so young. Mark Howe was the old man on defense, 31. Dave Poulin and Brian Propp were veterans in the group, too, at 27, and Tim Kerr was 26. And then there was this wave of kids: Pelle Eklund and Dave Brown (23), Rick Tocchet, Ron Sutter, Murray Craven and Ron Hextall (22), Zezel and Derrick Smith (21), and Scott Mellanby was 20.

They were just kids, and they went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1987 and took the Edmonton Oilers dynasty to seven games (after losing to the Oilers in five games in the '85 finals). Coach Mike Keenan rode them hard to the finish line and then they were too sore from the whip. Keenan was gone after the next season. The parts began being disassembled. The wilderness years followed for the franchise, followed by Eric Lindros.

But that young group really did make an era its own - and Zezel was there in the middle of it. His death after a decadelong struggle with hemolytic anemia - Zezel was in critical condition with the disease in 2001 - cannot help but remind everyone who was there about that time in the Flyers' history, and about their youthful face.

"I'm personally very, very sad today with the news of Peter's passing," said Ed Snider, the Flyers' chairman. "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."

Zezel was a good enough athlete to have played professional soccer in Canada, and was known for being able to kick the puck to teammates. He and Keenan seemed to clash at times, as they all did, but Keenan would reacquire Zezel twice more after they both left the Flyers.

"I remember Peter coming to the Flyers in 1985 along with Rick Tocchet, Derrick Smith and Scott Mellanby," Propp said last night in an e-mail. "Peter was the most sensitive of the bunch.

"Peter was great on faceoffs and a very good passer. He wasn't as aggressive as the others but was solid on his skates. We had a strong leadership group on our team in those years and Peter matured into a very reliable two-way player. Mike Keenan was always on him, which bothered Peter, but as he got older he learned from it and became one of Mike's players wherever Mike went.

"Peter was very good with the fans and would take time to talk to all of them for as long as they wanted to talk. Peter has run hockey camps in Toronto for children the past few years and given back to the community. We will miss him."

And here is the trivia question: The guy for whom the Flyers traded Zezel was Mike Bullard.

Women wept at the news. He was not the Flyers' best player, but his female legions would indicate he might have been their best-looking. Zezel was an honest, two-way center who showed scoring flashes but was not able to sustain them for his career.

The end of that career told you plenty about the man, too: Zezel retired so he could be close to a niece who was dying of cancer in Toronto rather than play out the string for another few months in Anaheim. *

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