101st pick: The tragic story of Peter Zezel

 

 
 
 
 
Peter Zezel never played another game after the Canucks traded him to Anaheim. He died in 2009 at the age of 41.
 
 

Peter Zezel never played another game after the Canucks traded him to Anaheim. He died in 2009 at the age of 41.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

It was certainly nice to see Peter Zezel wasn’t completely eliminated from our review of the top Canucks, as CityTV’s Jody Vance named him as her 101st greatest Canuck.

Most people remember Zezel as a strong faceoff man who scored at a pretty good clip when he first arrived, playing for Mike Keenan, but when he was asked to play a more defensive role, his play tailed off. By that time Brian Burke had taken over as Canucks GM and, nearing the end of his tenure here, Zezel asked if he could be traded to an Eastern Conference team so he could be closer to his dying five-year-old niece Jilliann, who had been diagnosed with a neutroblastoma.

Burke responded by moving Zezel to Anaheim, which couldn’t have been further away from Jilliann for Zezel, at which point the player promptly retired after he and his agent Mike Gillis talked things over.

There arose such a hue and cry that Burke ended up having to buy out Zezel’s contract and made a donation to a cancer charity — one that the Canucks favoured, not necessarily the player.

Zezel opened up to The Province a day after the little girl’s passing and it led to one of the best pieces your agent penned, that coming in May of 1999 ...

***

It will be tulips.

They will be the most bittersweet for Peter Zezel.

When he puts his nose to one, as he often will, the essence of the child he loved so much will return as surely as he will one day join his niece Jilliann, the three-year-old who died peacefully in her mother’s arms at home Sunday afternoon.

“Whenever I would come over, she would pick flowers and give them to me and say, ‘Smell them, Uncle Peter,’” the former Vancouver Canuck said from his home in Toronto yesterday. “It’s ironic that, of all the people I’ve known, it was her who taught me how to stop and smell the flowers.”

Jilliann’s goodbye brought to an end the cruel ordeal for everyone in the Zezel family, most particularly his sister Neda, her husband Richard Carter and their two surviving children, two-year-old Matthew and nine-month-old Jack. Jilliann had neuroblastoma, a tumour that started in the hip. In the end, doctors simply couldn’t do anything but try to ease her pain with morphine.

“It was pretty rough,” Zezel said. “She died at about 3 p.m. in my sister’s arms. She had slipped into a coma earlier in the morning and Rick and I were lying down beside her to be there, and I got up to get some coffee and, when I came back, her breathing had changed. I left again and my sister and Rick were in with her. They said she took one last breath and opened her eyes. My sister told her everything was all right and to go back to sleep and she was gone. They were in a few minutes longer. Then my sister came out and laid her in my arms.”

The family had wanted to make sure Jilliann died at home and not in a hospital. Two nurses were present to administer the appropriate medication in order that she might be as comfortable as possible.

“They came for her the next day and my sister took her out to them all dressed up. That’s when she finally broke down.”

Zezel wanted to let people know some of the more intimate details of their experience to thank them for all the support and understanding they showed when he left the Canucks at the trading deadline.

“I wanted to make sure I thanked the people in Vancouver personally for all their understanding and sympathy. I wanted people to know that I didn’t want to leave the team but I know now I made the right decision. I might have been right in the middle of a second-round series and have had to leave. I’ve hardly watched any of the hockey really, not even as a diversion.

“Jilliann has been pretty much Priority 1, as you might expect, whether it was reading a story or just talking to her.

“Thank God I came home.”

Zezel was traded at the deadline to Anaheim, another West Coast National Hockey League team that was heading into the playoffs. He decided to forgo hockey for the rest of the season in order to rejoin his family in Toronto, but he still intends to play somewhere.

“The family was all here. My parents were both here with us, and it was very peaceful, really. It was ironic that, the last time she was outside, she was picking the flowers as she always liked to do. She picked the last tulip on the property and gave it to my sister. I look back on that as her kind of clearing things up. The last time I talked to her I told her to watch out for me.

“Life is going to be a little different for all of us now, but she taught us so much. In a way it will be a little easier.

“I’ll have her watching over me.”

***

Peter Zezel played 873 regular-season games over 15 seasons in the NHL, but never played again after the Canucks traded him to the Ducks. Two years later, Zezel was found to have a rare blood disorder. He died on May 26, 2009, at the age of 41.

 
 
 
Font:
 
 
 
 
Peter Zezel never played another game after the Canucks traded him to Anaheim. He died in 2009 at the age of 41.
 

Peter Zezel never played another game after the Canucks traded him to Anaheim. He died in 2009 at the age of 41.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

 
Peter Zezel never played another game after the Canucks traded him to Anaheim. He died in 2009 at the age of 41.
Peter Zezel's niece, Jilliann Carter, passed away in 1999 of neutroblastoma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Your voice