LAKE PLACID, N.Y., SEPT. 10 -- Peter Zezel was in the town of Srb, Yugoslavia, in July when he learned he had been traded to the Washington Capitals. But while there he began to learn and understand why he grew up Canadian and not Yugoslavian.
"It was easier to understand what my father did and how far he went," Zezel said today after practice at the Olympic Centre. "When I was younger, I was there more or less to have fun. We have it pretty easy here. You learn to appreciate what we have here."
What his father, Peter Zezel Sr., did in 1945 was defect, though escape might be a fairer characterization.
The Germans and the Italians occupied Yugoslavia in the early stages of World War II. Meanwhile, the Croatians and the Serbians were waged in another phase of their centuries-old dispute. The Zezel family is Serbian, but the town of Srb is located in Croatia, about 60 miles from the Adriatic Sea. Zezel Sr. was 11 when the war broke out. It wasn't long after that a group of what he said were Croatian fascists came to get the elder Zezel's father.
"They killed my father, just because we were Serbian," Zezel Sr. said by phone from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. "They surrounded the house. I was asleep, along with my sisters and brother. They woke up my father and mother. They took him up to this mountain, where there is a big cave."
The cave became a grave, according to Zezel Sr., and every time he returns to Srb, he asks family members and a priest to climb the mountain with him and pray for his father.
"There are a few thousand people there," he said. "I don't know his grave, but I know he is there."
Zezel Sr. was a guerrilla by age 14, fighting with the resistance against the fascists of several nationalities. But the liberators of Yugoslavia had red stars on their tanks.
"I didn't want to live under Communism, so I left the country," Zezel Sr. said. He made his way to Italy, where he spent three years and worked for the British RAF. Still a teenager, he sailed for Canada, with few belongings, little money and a bit of English.
He settled near Winnipeg, working on a farm, then in a lumber camp. After three years, he moved to Toronto, where he met his future wife, Valerie. The son of a tailor, he eventually saved enough to buy a dry cleaning shop.
"It wasn't bad at all," he said of being in a strange, new place with little money. "That was a thrill after what I went through in the war. I considered myself very fortunate."
The Capitals' Peter Zezel is just 25, never had to fight in a war and has seen his father retire a happy man. But if the shirts in his father's shop were white, the upbringing was blue-collar, and that work ethic helped the father make it in a new country and has helped the son make it in the NHL.
"He's a player with a lot of talent, and always played the body and was really tenacious on the puck," Kelly Miller said of the days when Zezel played for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Zezel spent four full seasons with the Flyers before being traded to St. Louis for Mike Bullard on Nov. 29, 1988. The Capitals remembered him. So when Geoff Courtnall asked to be traded this summer, the Capitals got Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor from the Blues.
"I remember going on the ice and being called a few names," Zezel said with a smile, recalling visits as a Flyer to Capital Centre. "Now that I'm in a Capitals uniform, hopefully it will be different."
If Zezel can repeat his season of a year ago, it surely will be. Zezel, 5 feet 9, 200 muscular pounds, is a good athlete who played a few games with the North American Soccer League's Toronto Blizzard. He likes to think he is a decent passer. He certainly proved it last season by helping his right wing, Brett Hull, score a league-high 72 goals. Zezel was the Blues' third-leading scorer with 25 goals and 47 assists. The 72 points tied his NHL best.
"I like to be aggressive in the corners and I work well in the corners," Zezel said. "I consider myself a good playmaker. I hope I can help in certain situations, wherever they are. But I don't know where or who I'm going to play with, so it's hard to judge now."
Today's practice was just the second of training camp. Monday, Zezel worked between left wing Michal Pivonka and right wing Steve Leach. Today, he was teamed with Bob Joyce and Dino Ciccarelli.
Whatever line he centers, Zezel is glad to be here. He wasn't eager to leave St. Louis, but there were rumors of a trade.
"On the plane to Yugoslavia," Zezel's father said, "I said, 'If you get traded, where would you like to go?' He said, 'I wouldn't mind going to Washington.' So when my wife called, I got to break the news. I told him he was traded. He asked where. I told him to guess and he said, 'Not Washington?' Then I saw a smile on his face."