“He truly believed that the concept of the CMHL was great for promoting the game of hockey as the common bond that brought Canadians together,” Papulkas said. “Peter was the Canadian Multicultural Hockey Championships.”
Papulkas first met Zezel over 20 years ago, when the hockey star was just a rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers. Zezel was also a promising young soccer prospect and joined a few NHL players in a charity soccer game for the Robbie Soccer Tournament in Scarborough.
“He noticed my last name and asked me if I was related to a Mary Papulkas who was his most favourite teacher. Indeed I was as Mrs. P. as he called her, was my Aunt.,” Papulkas said. “He really wanted to see her again, so I arranged a reunion and as Peter continued his friendship with my Aunt, we too became friends.”
Years later, when Papulkas started putting together the first Canadian Multicultural Hockey Championships, Zezel heard about the tournament from former Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Mark Osborne and immediately jumped on board.
“When I heard about it, I said ‘What a great idea,’” Zezel said during a 2007 interview. “We have such a large ethnic background here in Toronto that it’s almost like a little world cup and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Although part-Irish, Zezel opted to form his own team, the Serbian White Eagles. During the team’s second year under Zezel’s leadership in 2006, the White Eagles were undefeated in the round-robin portion of the tournament with a 3-0-1 record and finished fourth in the league.
Zezel also represented his Irish heritage when the Irish Shamrocks travelled north to Barry’s Bay to compete against their northern counterparts in 2008. Irish head coach Mike Devine said he had to honour of his life with Zezel during the trip.
“I confirmed that we would go and then found out that my team had committed to play a money tournament in Beaverton, so at this point I had no team except Peter,” Devine recalled. “I scrambled to get as many second tier Irish guys as I could. I told Peter before the game that we were in trouble and he said we will give our Irish best. He played phenomenally. It was such a great time for me that a guy I had admired for so long, I actually got to call his name for the next shift. We won 2-1, he had two assists and I was able to give him a hug at the end of the game and thank him for just being Peter. He actually thanked me and I was in heaven. We doused ourselves with Scarborough champagne (Spumante Bambino 6.95) and I will never forget that game and how Peter was such a class act to his teammates and to me.”
Zezel grew up in Scarborough and played minor hockey with the Don Mills Flyers. He joined the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros for two seasons and was selected 41st overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. Zezel idolized Flyers’ star Bobby Clarke and it was just an honour to meet his favourite player during his rookie camp.
He made the team during the 1984-85 season and the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup final that year. He then made his film debut in Youngblood, starring Rob Lowe, and soon had other acting roles offered to him, including a part in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but Zezel turned them down to continue his hockey career.
After stints with the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, Zezel’s dream came true when he was traded to his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and helped the Leafs reach the Western Conference final in 1993 and 1994.
His NHL career came to a close in 1999 when his niece was diagnosed with leukemia. Zezel, who was playing for the Vancouver Canucks at the time, asked to be traded to an Eastern Conference team to be closer to her in Toronto but when his request wasn’t fulfilled, he promptly retired and returned home.
Zezel planned to return to the NHL after a year off but tragedy struck again in October 2001 when he was diagnosed with hemolytic anemia and nearly died twice.
“He suffered but never complained,” Papulkas said. “He knew he could beat it.”
Zezel remained strong and wouldn’t let the disease prevent him from giving back to the community as much as he could. On top of his roles as a player, coach and general manager of the Serbian White Eagles, Zezel also served as the league’s ambassador and was always willing to give his time to help out. He was a frequent guest on TSN’s Off the Record and appeared on other television programs to promote the league.
“Every time there was an event to promote the CMHL, Peter would be there. He would be there to sign autographs for kids, give them pointers and talk hockey stories with the adults. He can relate to anyone,” Papulkas said. “He always knew how to make people feel good.”
Zezel’s willingness to help others came from a personal experience when he was younger and was denied an autograph from one of his favourite Maple Leaf players. He would even go out of his way to make a fan happy.
Papulkas recalled one particular moment: “Peter was playing in an exhibition game for the CMHL championships and noticed a young kid sitting in the stands by himself, waiting for his father (on the other team) to get off the ice. The kid must have been six or seven. Peter asked me the next day to find out who's son that was in the stands so he can get him a personally autographed hockey stick. Once we identified who's son it was in the stands, Peter made a personal trip (when he wasn't even playing) to the next game and gave him the autographed stick that he promised. The kid was so happy. This was not uncommon for Peter. He would always give away his sticks to kids in the crowd.”
Zezel explained his acts of kindness in 2007: “You respect everybody and I know a lot of kids look up to professional athletes and as a professional athlete we have to give back to the community as the community has given to us. It is our responsibility to guide these little hockey players to the best of their abilities to play hockey or even life skills and I think as we respect the younger kids, they’ll respect us. When we’re actually signing autographs and giving enjoyment to these kids, it’s such a big boost to put a smile on a kid’s face.”
On top of his commitments to the league, Zezel also ran soccer and hockey camps in Toronto as well as coached his old Don Mills Flyers team.
His passing shocked the hockey world and condolences poured in from all over.
In a statement issued by the Toronto Maple Leafs, former linemate Mark Osborne said, “Peter was the ultimate caring friend and teammate. He was so dedicated to his family and friends and he would always freely give of his time and energies to help someone else. He was truly a passionate and loyal friend both on and off the ice. Our hockey family is devastated