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  • Friday, April 2, 1999

    The hardest hit of all

    Family first as NHLer puts career on hold to spend time with dying niece

    By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
      The vigil has begun on a quiet street in Scarborough where his parents live just a few houses from his sister's home, and his three-year-old niece clings desperately to life.
     Peter Zezel tries to find the right words to comfort his sister, to hold his niece, to try to explain what indeed is unexplainable.
     "I keep asking her how she's doing and I think it's kind of a stupid question,'' Zezel said. "But what else am I supposed to say? What is anybody supposed to say?''
     Jilliann was at Sick Kid's Hospital again yesterday in need of further treatment, in need of further pain control. She is 31/2 years old, the bright light in Zezel's life. Her hair is gone, she doesn't walk much any more and she knows something is dreadfully wrong. The cancer is called neuroblastoma. It affects one in 10,000 people. It has consumed Zezel's close-knit family for the past 13 months.
     "She's just a great kid, a special kid,'' Uncle Peter said. "If I hadn't come home now, if I didn't do what I did, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.''
     Last week, on the morning of the NHL's trading deadline, Peter Zezel's telephone rang and his life, already emotional, took another turn. On the other end of the line was Brian Burke, the Vancouver Canucks general manager.
     "Peter, we've traded you to Anaheim,'' Burke said.
     At first, Zezel was stunned, and then he spoke.
     "Have you been in contact with Mike Gillis?'' Zezel asked. The day before, Zezel had spoken to Gillis, his agent. He told Gillis to inform the Canucks of the severity of his personal situation. He would have accepted a trade to Toronto or Buffalo -- anything to be closer to home -- but nowhere else.
     "I don't know if I'm going to report,'' Zezel told Burke.
     "What do you mean?'' a terse Burke said. "Why not?''
     At this point, Zezel was ready to lose it. He had made his personal situation clear. His niece is terminal. In his mind he is thinking, 'Why can't you understand this?'
     "If you don't go,'' Burke said, "we'll suspend you.''
     "Well, maybe you'll have to,'' Zezel said.
     "I know he knew the severity of it,'' Zezel, 33, said yesterday, still trying make sense of the miscommunication. "I knew he had been relayed the message. I just thought ... ''
     He thought what others are now saying quietly. That he was a Mike Keenan guy and Brian Burke wasn't a Mike Keenan guy and Burke was picking an inappropriate time to flex his muscles.
     "I called Pierre Gauthier afterward and he totally understood,'' Zezel said of the Anaheim general manager who had made the trade unaware of the situation. "He said 'Go home, be with your family.' ''
     Zezel then called Paul Kariya, the Mighty Ducks captain. "I wanted him to understand also. I was thrilled I could go there. I just couldn't go now. I wanted to apologize to the other players so I asked Paul if he could talk to them for me.''
     The day after the trade deadline, Zezel flew from Vancouver to Toronto where he has spent the past week, back in his parents' home, down the street from his sister, doing whatever he can do.
     Being with family at a family time.
     Since Jan. 24, they have known that Jilliann was going to die. That was after the trip to Orlando set up by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That was after Zezel joined his sister and his niece at Disney World, when he was injured and had been granted permission to leave the team and Jilliann was so weak she had to be taken through the amusement park in a stroller.
     "Leaving her when I left Orlando was as tough a thing as I've ever done,'' Zezel said. "I didn't know then if I would ever see her again.
     "She has hung on a long time, she's a tough kid. Most of the kids she was with at Sick Kids aren't there any more. They're gone now. She's still fighting. I've always said she was like a woman in a child's body, she has an old soul and a special spirit. There always has been something special about her.''
     Peter Zezel isn't married, never has been. This is family and his life. His hockey career is on the decline. He battled to make it back to the NHL this season, was wanted by a playoff team when he knew he had to walk away.
     "If I don't play again, I'll know I did the right thing,'' he said.
     The final $110,000 owing on his contract has been donated to the Canucks foundation for terminally ill children. The Canucks, clearly embarrassed by their insensitivity, have matched Zezel's donation.
     "I'm not really a religious person,'' Peter Zezel said, "but I try to rationalize what has gone on here and the only thing I can think about is when she goes she won't be in any pain any more."


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