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Peter Zezel symbolized '80s Flyers

The view from the old Spectrum press box was a study in the sociology of Flyers fans. They wore their hearts on their backs.

The view from the old Spectrum press box was a study in the sociology of Flyers fans. They wore their hearts on their backs.

Some fathers (in Clarke and MacLeish and Parent jerseys) brought their sons (Howe and Kerr and Hextall) to the games. Others shared their favorite sport with their daughters (Zezel and Zezel and Zezel).

For a while there in the 1980s, you looked at the Flyers' team photo and wondered if the organization was trying to assemble the best-looking team in the NHL. The club had somehow gone from the toothless, ragged Broad Street Bullies to a precursor of the Backstreet Boys. It seemed as interested in selling posters as selling tickets.

Except for one thing: The young and handsome stars of the team could really play. The heartthrobs had heart to go with considerable talent. They proved that by going to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in three years, losing both times to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers - a team that belongs in any conversation about the greatest ever assembled.

That Flyers team was the franchise's new wave - the flesh-and-blood heroes of a generation too young to remember the Bobby Clarke-led heyday - and Peter Zezel was the rock star of the bunch.

"He was probably one of the top three athletes in Philadelphia at that time," Rick Tocchet, another of those young Flyers, said in a statement distributed by the Flyers. "Everybody recognized him on and off the ice. . . . Peter was a matinee idol. He was one of those guys who were infectious. When you went out with him, the girls just really liked him. He had a fan base of girls that in all the years I've played in the NHL, I have never seen a guy that had so many girls flock to him."

The awful news of Zezel's premature death Tuesday was jarring on several levels. First, of course, was the shocking loss of a 44-year-old man, a genuinely warm and generous athlete and hockey ambassador cheated of decades of life by a rare blood disorder. Then there was the selfish realization that time is passing more quickly than any of us in that same age range might care to admit.

And there was also the lingering sense that players of that era were the last with a genuine connection to their fans. This may explain why Philadelphia fans feel a deeper bond with, say, the Buddy Ryan-era Eagles and Charles Barkley 76ers than with most of the stars and teams that came along later.

Some of that change came with the explosion in salaries and some with the proliferation of media, which led to a counterinsurgency of publicists and formal press availabilities. Players of the '80s certainly made a lot of money compared with their fans, but you still sensed they lived on the same planet as the rest of us.

With its Canadian roots and fourth-major-sport inferiority complex, hockey has always been a bit closer to the grass roots than baseball, football, and basketball. The Flyers' hard-core fans have a uniquely familial relationship with the team. There isn't just a feeling that you might go out and have a beer with the players. If you live anywhere near the team's training facility in Voorhees, chances are you already have done so.

If the dark side of that culture was the horrific car accident that claimed young goalie Pelle Lindbergh in 1985, the bright side has always been the sense of community that surrounds the Flyers. And in the '80s, Zezel was the face of that community.

He would deliberately leave the Spectrum by the door that would expose him to the most waiting fans. And it was said he carried his own selection of pens and markers so he could sign autographs on different items.

It was almost as if Zezel was fated to be a Flyer. He had grown up as a huge fan of Clarke, and even emulated the Flyers' first marquee player by adjusting his elbow pads before each face-off. It was Clarke as general manager who eventually traded Zezel to the St. Louis Blues, setting him on a career course that took him to his beloved hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, among other stops.

Zezel was a good, not great, player. He had a fine 15-year career, but not the kind that gets your plaque in the Hall of Fame. Still, he had an impact on the game, at least here in Philadelphia, that was more profound than his numbers would indicate.

Peter Zezel, with a face that sold thousands of No. 25 jerseys and broke more than a few teenage hearts, certainly died too soon. He takes with him a little piece of sports-fan innocence that seems surprisingly quaint just 20 years later.