Brett Peterson first fell in love with hockey because of its entrances. He would sit in the stands before a college hockey game, watching the lights in the arena dim and listening to the music grow louder, as spotlights followed every player onto the ice when their name was announced for pregame introductions.
“That sparked my imagination, where I would be playing pond hockey or street hockey and replicating how I’d come out for the starting lineup,” he said. “You see something, and then you’re like, ‘That excites me. I can do that.'”
Now it’s Peterson who is inspiring others with a dramatic entrance into hockey. The Florida Panthers hired him as an assistant general manager in November, as he left the player agency world for his first front-office job. He’s the first Black assistant GM in National Hockey League history, according to the team.
Peterson can’t help but wonder whose wonderment he’s helping to spark.
“By having representation, it opens up a whole new world of people that can start to make their imagination run. Hopefully this opens up another door to have amazing people share their gifts with us,” he said.
Kim Davis, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of social impact and growth initiatives, called Peterson “an opportunity icon for the BIPOC community,” adding that his responsibility to steward diversity practices within the team “will almost certainly outweigh the other professionals” that are in the same position in the league.
“But make no mistake — Brett was chosen for his talent, passion, skill and ability to deliver on-ice results,” she said.
Bill Zito, in his first season as Panthers general manager, has known Peterson for a decade, first as a player he represented as an agent, and then when Peterson became an agent with Acme World Sports. Despite it being a landmark hiring for an NHL team — a league infamous for its minimal diversity at the hockey operations level — Zito said that wasn’t on his mind when he pushed Florida ownership to hire Peterson.
He was just confident that the man he knew as “Chubbs” was the right person for the job.
“I never thought about it, honestly. This is just someone who was like a brother to me,” Zito said. “If it means that we’re expanding opportunities for people in hockey, then I’m humbled. But this was a hockey hire. Hockey is such a great game. We need to make it accessible. I’m hopeful that maybe someone else can get a chance.”
Peterson’s path to the Panthers began at Boston College, where he played 157 games over four seasons as a defenseman.
“We recruited him hard out of Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass. We thought he was an excellent prospect for us,” said Jerry York, the head coach at BC since 1994. “Everything I picked up during the recruiting process about the kind of character Brett and his family had, it was all proved true. If I had my own Hall of Fame for parents — and it’s not a huge Hall of Fame — they would certainly be part of it.”
“I liked him as a hockey player. But I liked him even more as a character person,” said York of Peterson. “He was one of those guys in the locker room that everybody respected the heck out of. He was warm and personable. Wherever Brett was, there were going to be a lot of people around him, you know?”
Like many college players, Peterson had the dream to play professionally after his NCAA days were done. From 2004-09, he bounced around the minor leagues, playing for franchises like the ECHL Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies and the Florida Everblades. The closest he got to the NHL were two cups of coffee in the American Hockey League, where he played 21 games in total with the Albany River Rats and Grand Rapids Griffins.
Teammates and coaches saw talent in Peterson that extended beyond the ice. Zito met him as an ECHL player with the nickname “Chubbs,” a reference to the character Chubbs Peterson in the Adam Sandler sports comedy classic “Happy Gilmore.” He heard from people that knew Peterson that he had the stuff to be a great player agent. As it happened, Zito was looking for someone in the Boston area to add to his roster at Acme.
So he met with Peterson … and Peterson asked whether Zito would be his agent, rather than expressing a desire to become one himself.
“And I’m like, ‘Well, s—, OK.’ So that lasted for about a year while he was in the [ECHL], and then he came on board,” Zito recalled.
Peterson, who represented players like Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, became just the second Black U.S.-born certified player agent to work in the NHL. Before coming to the Panthers, Peterson was the vice president for hockey at Wasserman Media Group, which acquired Acme last year.
Zito had previously made the jump from player agent to front-office executive himself, having been an assistant general manager with the Columbus Blue Jackets before his gig with the Panthers. He saw the same path for Peterson.
“His substantive hockey experience as a player, significant developmental and evaluation skills and business acumen as a negotiator combine to form an elite skill set that is very difficult to find in our sport,” Zito said. “There are many who can excel in one of those disciplines, but few who excel in all three.”
Peterson said his time has an agent has similarities with his new role.
“Yeah. A lot. Surprisingly a lot. Which is actually comforting, because there’s a lot of ‘Oh, I know how to do this.’ There are a lot more layers of things that come on this side [of the table]. It’s been a little bit eye-opening in terms of finding out that people can’t just move this or move that and make something happen, which is what the agent side felt like,” he said.
Peterson works in both player development and on the business side for Florida. The Panthers said that Peterson will have an active role in the Florida Panthers Foundation’s community-based programs, which seek to expand hockey’s reach in the community.
“He just has infectious energy. Positive and upbeat. Just an awesome guy. Everybody loves Brett,” said Zito, who said that charisma is vital in building the team’s roster and staff, too. “We live in an age of free agency. We’re trying to get people excited about the team — coaches, players, scouts. You wanna come with us? We’re trying to get this franchise going.”
The Panthers have been one of the most progressive organizations in the NHL recently in seeking C-suite talent. They inquired about Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero’s interest in joining their front office before hiring Zito. They blazed a new trail in hiring Peterson as assistant GM.
“They’re super progressive, but they’re not being overly [aggressive],” Peterson said. “They’re thinking through each level and layer of what they want to do. They’re inputting the progressive thinking into it. That’s really been fun to see. There’s a lot of commonsense things that they’re inputting into the team, and it’s starting to show. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Vincent Viola, who owns the Panthers, is on the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council, which was announced last year as part of the league’s anti-racism initiatives. The group, and three other committees, were tasked with studying diversity and inclusion in the sport.
While it wasn’t necessarily a byproduct of those efforts, Davis said Peterson’s hiring by the Panthers was indicative of their progress. “Brett’s hiring is a public indication of the significant movement to accelerate diversity and inclusion throughout the hockey industry,” she said.
When asked why there aren’t more Black player personnel executives in the NHL, Peterson said he sees it as a supply problem.
“First of all, we need to have more minorities that want to do it,” he said. “You’ve got to have people that create a plan for themselves, who say, ‘I want this to be my career.’ The one thing about the hockey community is that there are amazing people here. They’re very thoughtful, and it’s a team-oriented community. I don’t think that anybody who is a minority, if they really wanted to do this, if they really wanted to chart a path for themselves, couldn’t have the same success if they did the work. It starts with putting together a plan for yourself,” he said.
He believes the NHL should have a role in inspiring more minorities to seek higher hockey offices.
“I think the NHL has taken great steps in terms of opening up doors and creating more of an inclusive environment for everybody. We’re making progress. And some progress is better than no progress,” he said. “Just like anything, we’re not going to snap our fingers and there are going to be 15 eligible candidates that are minorities or of different genders. But I think if we’re patient, and people start to get excited and build on that, then there will be that group. It’s just a little bit at a time.”
Peterson’s landmark hiring came during a year in which the NHL collided with the winds of social change that swept America. It started when San Jose Sharks star Evander Kane signed a petition in May that demanded the arrest of the four officers “involved in murdering George Floyd.” That helped inspire around 110 NHL players and every NHL team to make a statement against racial injustice through their social media handles.
When the NHL restarted its season in two Canadian bubble cities last summer, it took a stand against racism in ways it never had before, from “Black Lives Matter” billboards around the rink to players kneeling on the ice during the national anthem. When a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Wisconsin in August, NHL players encouraged the league to postpone four playoff games and take the time to have a dialogue about racism. While the NHL developed its own committees to study racism in the sport, the player-led Hockey Diversity Alliance became a major force for change outside of the league.
In 2021, it’s a bit quieter on social media. There are no anti-racism billboards at the rink. The league has done its annual remembrances and honors during Black History Month — many of them centered on Willie O’Ree, who broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958 — but the outpouring that fans saw in the bubbles hasn’t carried over to the 2021 season.
When asked about this, Peterson said he’d rather see people doing the work on racism and their own education rather than spending time advertising about it.
“First of all, a lot of people have quietly continued to educate themselves. And just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean that people aren’t making that commitment to move things forward. I know a lot of people that are much more in tune with everything, and are willing to listen more to what’s going on, because they had no idea. That doesn’t necessarily have to be plastered on a billboard every day,” he said.
What Peterson wants to see are advocates. Like the ones who have helped him on his journey, vouching for someone whom the hockey system might have otherwise passed over.
“A lot of people that I’ve become friends with are legendary people in this game that have gone and spoken on my behalf, in back corners to other people, saying that ‘this guy is OK.’ I think that’s a big piece of it: People that have that platform and that credibility, who have lived the life and done it, validating somebody that otherwise they don’t have to. But they want to connect good people with good people. That’s what has been a very big difference for me,” he said.
At 39 years old, he’s achieved something that other generations of Black players have seen as unachievable, but that subsequent generations will know is attainable. York doesn’t believe his journey stops here.
“There are more steps for him to take,” the coach said. “I project him to be a real key figure in an NHL organization. There’s no limit to how far he could go.”
How would that young Brett Peterson, sitting in the stands at a college hockey game and dreaming about a career in the game, react to current-day Brett Peterson as an assistant general manager of an NHL team?
“Maybe a little bit of a dance, a high-five … and a chuckle,” he said.