I have found out that my childhood heros growing up as a kid have mostly disappointed me. Most of the sports heros I followed that I have met were just very bad with people skills, and very talented athletes. In fact, I can only think of a few that DIDN'T disappoint me when I met them. A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to play goal for his charity hockey team playing in a Pro-Am tournament.
The ex-pros playing were all very notable, and I remembered following them all as a kid. I met Peter Zezel in that tournament. He was overweight, and had lost the skip in his step, but his hands were still amazing.
Kris King, a former pro was on my team and before the game he was giving me some tips on stopping Zezel.
"He LOVES to go high glove" Said King.
"Perfect, that’s my highlight reel save" I replied.
Kris just looked at me like I was nuts and said, "Just stop the puck hot-shot"
First shift, down comes Zezel on the off-wing and fires a shot that I'm still looking for. -Over my left shoulder and under the bar. 1-0
The first thing that happens is Kris King skates by me and said "See? I told ya"
"Yeah, yeah yeah... won’t happen again." I quipped
Peter Zezel scored the EXACT same goal 3 times on my ass that game and I never saw a one. I may as well have been sitting on the bench because I would've had a better view. After the game, I was shaking hands with him and I noticed how big and strong his mitts were. He looked like he had the hands of a tradesman. And a highly skilled tradesman he was. But what stood out to me was how gracious he was.
I said to him, "I just couldn't stop you today Peter"
"I got lucky" he said with a wink.
But we both knew he wasn't lucky...He was gracious and a kind hearted man.
I asked him about his rookie year when he played with my childhood idol Pelle Lindbergh, a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers in the early 80’s. Peter told me all the stories that only a teammate could tell you. Jokes, stories and what a genuine nice guy Pelle was. It really made my day...
About a year later, I held a Charity Hockey Day in Canada tournament on my backyard hockey rink for the kids in various groups of friends I had. I asked Peter if he would come and sign autographs that day. Both he and Mark Osborne came that day. The Local News picked up the story, and sent some cameras over and we made the Evening News as well. Peter signed every kids jersey, card, and shirt that he was asked for.
-Not only did he sign, but he asked the kids questions about where they played, who they played for, and who their favourite player was. He took a real genuine interest in each one. -A class act all round.
"I grew up 2 blocks from here" he said to me. "I wish someone put this on for me when I was their age. Good for you." he added.
It made me gleam. I never did thank him for that comment, but I think my face said it all.
Every time I played him, or saw him, he was the same cool guy. -Always wearing casual snap pants and soccer trainer shoes. Always with a smile on his face, and a pen in hand signing autographs.
I saw him walk into the Air Canada Centre, where the Toronto Maple Leafs play, and as he was walking, people were asking for his autograph. He never stopped signing, ever. Whereas some hockey players won't sign, Peter was the one that made time to sign, because he remembered what it was like to be a kid.
I never did get his autograph. It feels funny asking for an autograph to a guy you know, and see often. I always told him I wanted him to sign my Pelle Lindbergh Flyers jersey, but he used to say, "You don't want me to sign that, it'll ruin it!'
Well, Peter Zezel lost his battle with a rare blood disease yesterday. I had just sent him an email while I was lying in my hospital bed on Monday. I knew that he was back in getting Chemo, and I thought I should send him a message to let him know I was thinking of him, and we're all pulling for him to beat this disease that he's been battling for too many years.
But he never got it in time. Peter was 44 years old.
I'm glad I met Peter Zezel, and got the chance to play with him. He really made me believe that there are childhood idols out there worth having. He wasn't the guy you grew up idolizing on the ice, but for his work with kids off the ice, he would've been considered a superstar. I hope that he is in a better place, knowing that he is missed. I'm glad his suffering and his battle and his body betraying him is over. It’s sad to lose such a great man, but in knowing him, I think the world was a bit of a better place.
We'll miss you Peter...