Brett Peterson first fell in love with hockey through his contribution. He sat in the stands for a college hockey game and watched the lights go out in the arena, listening to the music get even louder as the spotlights followed each player onto the ice to announce their name for the introductions before the game.

It stimulated my imagination to think of where I would play pond hockey or street hockey and how I would get into the starting lineup, he said. You see something and then you talk: It excites me. I can do that.

Now it’s Peterson inspiring others with a dramatic introduction to the sport of hockey. The Florida Panthers hired him as an assistant general manager last November when he left the world of player agents for his first job in the front office. According to the team, he is the first black GM assistant in National Hockey League history.

Peterson wonders what miracle he is contributing to.

Being represented opens up a whole new world of people who can start realizing their imagination. We hope this opens another door for extraordinary people to share their gifts with us, he said.

Kim Davis, Senior Executive Vice President of NHL Social Impact and Growth Initiatives, called Peterson an icon for the BIPOC community and added that his responsibility to lead the team’s diversity practices will almost certainly be greater than that of other professionals in the league in the same positions.

But make no mistake – Brett was chosen because of his talent, passion, skill and ability to get results on the ice.

Bill Zito, in his first season as general manager of the Panthers, had known Peterson for a decade, first as a player he represented as an agent, and then when Peterson became an agent for Acme World Sports. While this is a milestone for hiring a team from the NHL – a league known for its minimal diversity in hockey activities – Zito said it didn’t cross his mind when he urged the Florida owners to hire Peterson.

He was just sure that the man he knew as Chubbs was the right man for the job.

Honestly, I never thought about it. He was just someone who was like a brother to me, Zito said. If that means more opportunities for people in hockey, then I feel humbled. But it was a hockey rental. Hockey is such a great game. We need to make them accessible. I hope someone else gets their chance.

Petterson’s path to the Panthers began at Boston College, where he played 157 games in four seasons as a defender.

We recruited him from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. We thought he would be an excellent candidate for us, said Jerry York, B.C.’s head coach since 1994. Everything I learned about the character of Brett and his family during the recruiting process was confirmed. If I had my own Hall of Fame for my parents – and it’s not a big Hall of Fame – they would definitely be in it.

Peterson won a national championship with Boston College in 2001 with a team that included a half-dozen NHL prospects, including defensemen Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik.

I liked him as a hockey player. But I liked him even more as a character, York said of Peterson. He was one of those guys in the locker room that everyone had a lot of respect for. He was warm and welcoming. Wherever Brett is, there’s gonna be a lot of people around him, you know?

2 Connected

Like many college players, Peterson dreamed of playing professionally after his NCAA years. He played in the minor leagues from 2004 to 2009, most notably for the Atlantic City Bullies and the Florida Everblades. The closest he has come to the NHL are two cups of coffee in the American Hockey League, where he played a total of 21 games for the Albany River Rats and the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Teammates and coaches saw in Peterson a talent that reached beyond the ice. Zito first met him as an ECHL player nicknamed Chubbs, a reference to the character of Chubbs Peterson in Adam Sandler’s classic sports comedy Happy Gilmore. People who knew Peterson told him he had the makings of a great agent. Coincidentally, Zito was looking for someone in the Boston area to add to his Acme list.

So he met with Peterson… and Peterson asked Zito to be his agent instead of becoming one himself.

And I am: Well, uh… That’s all I’m saying. So it took about a year while he was in the ECHL, and then he came on board, Zito recalls.

Peterson, who represented players like Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, became the second black agent to be certified to work in the NHL. Before joining the Panthers, Peterson was vice president of hockey for the Wasserman Media Group, which Acme acquired last year.

Zito had previously made the jump from player agent to the private office of the director himself. Before his time with the Panthers, he was assistant general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He saw the same path for Peterson.

His extensive experience as an ice hockey player, his strong development and evaluation skills, and his business acumen as a negotiator combine to form an elite skill set that is very hard to find in our sport, Mr. Zito said. Many can excel in one of these disciplines, but few can excel in all three.

Peterson said there were similarities between his time as an agent and his new role.

Yes. Very much so. An amazing number. Which is actually reassuring, because there are a lot of things I know how to do. There are many other layers of things on this side [of the table]. He said you can’t just move this or that and do something that feels like the agency.

Peterson was a member of the Boston College team that won the NCAA Frozen Four title in 2001. Matthew West/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Peterson works in both player and business development in Florida. According to the Panthers, Peterson will play an active role in the Florida Panthers Foundation’s community programs to expand the reach of hockey in the community.

He just has an infectious energy. Positive and optimistic. Great guy. Everyone loves Brett, said Zito, who added that charisma is also important in forming a team and staff. We live in the age of free agency. We try to get people excited about the team – coaches, players, scouts. Do you want to come with us? We’re trying to get the concession.

The Panthers have been one of the most progressive organizations in the NHL lately when it comes to finding C-level talent. They inquired about Hockey Hall of Fame member Angela Ruggiero’s interest in joining their front office before hiring Zito. They took a new tack by hiring Peterson as assistant to the CEO.

They’re super progressive, but not too [aggressive]. They think about every level and layer of what they want to do. They bring in progressive thinking. It was a lot of fun to watch, Mr. Peterson said. They bring a lot of common sense to the team, and it shows. I’m glad to be a part of it.

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Vincent Viola, owner of the Panthers, is on the NHL’s board of directors for the integration, which was announced last year as part of the league’s anti-racism initiatives. This group and three other committees are tasked with studying diversity and inclusion in sport.

While not necessarily a byproduct of this effort, Davis said Peterson’s hiring of the Pantherson is a sign of their progress. She said Brett’s hiring is public proof of an important movement to accelerate diversity and inclusion in the hockey industry.

When asked why there aren’t more black player managers in the NHL, Peterson replied that he sees it as a supply issue.

First, we need more minorities who want it. You have to have people who make a plan for themselves, who talk: I want this to be my career. What’s so special about the hockey community is that there are great people here. They are very caring and it is a team-oriented community. I don’t think that someone who is a minority, if they really wanted to, if they really wanted to take the lead, could not have the same success in getting the job done. It starts with making a plan for yourself, he said.

He believes the NHL should play a role in encouraging more minorities to aspire to higher positions in hockey clubs.

I think the NHL has made great progress in opening doors and creating a more inclusive environment for all. We’re making progress. And a little progress is better than no progress, he said. As with everything, we will not snap our fingers and there will be 15 eligible candidates who are minorities or of different gender. But I think if we are patient and people get excited and build on that foundation, that group will come. A little bit at a time.

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The culmination of Peterson’s hiring came in a year when the NHL was dealing with the winds of social change sweeping through America. It all started when San Jose Sharks star Evander Kane signed a petition last May calling for the arrest of four police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd. He has helped inspire approximately 110 NHL players and all NHL teams to acknowledge racial injustice through their social media.

When the NHL resumed its season last summer in two booming Canadian cities, racism was recognized like never before, from Black Lives Matter posters around the rink to players kneeling on the ice during the national anthem. When Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Wisconsin in August, NHL players asked the league to postpone four playoff games and find time to talk about racism. While the NHL has established its own committees to investigate racism in the sport, the player-led Hockey Diversity Alliance has become a major force for change outside the league.

Things are a little quieter on social media in 2021. There are no anti-racism posters at the rink. Each year the league commemorates and honors Black History Month – many of which revolve around Willie O’Rea breaking the color barrier in hockey in 1958 – but the boost fans saw in the Bubbles didn’t last until the 2021 season.

Asked about this, Peterson said he would rather have people engage in anti-racism and their own education, rather than wasting their time on advertising for it.

But above all, many continued their education in silence. And just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean people aren’t determined to move on. I know many people who accept everything and want to listen more because they had no idea what was going on. He said it was not necessary to post it on a billboard every day.

Peterson wants to see lawyers. Like those who helped him get on track to stand in for someone who might otherwise have missed out on hockey.

Many people I have become friends with, legendary people in this game who have come to speak on my behalf, have told other people from the bottom of their hearts that this man is doing well. I think it’s a big chunk: The people who have that platform and that credibility, who have lived their lives and made it, are claiming someone they wouldn’t have had otherwise. But they want to connect good people with good people. It made a very big difference to me, he said.

At the age of 39, he realized what other generations of black players considered unattainable, but what subsequent generations would learn to achieve. York can’t believe his journey ends here.

He still has a few steps to go. I see him as a real key figure in the NHL’s organization. There’s no limit to what he can do, the coach said.

How would a young Brett Peterson, who sat in the stands at a college hockey game and dreamed of a career in sports, react to today’s Brett Peterson as the assistant general manager of an NHL team?

Maybe do a little dance, high five… and laugh, he said.

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