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Bill Zito Q&A: His Road from Brewers Bat Boy to Panthers GM

Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito caught up with The Hockey News to discuss his journey from baseball to sports agent to the NHL, his aggressive trades, his confidence in coach Andrew Brunette and more.
Bill Zito

Bill Zito didn’t ease into his first NHL GM gig. He’s built a powerhouse team over his first season and a half helming the Florida Panthers, making a slew of major acquisitions, from Sam Bennett to Sam Reinhart. He recently caught up with The Hockey News to discuss his baseball beginnings, how he transitioned from an agent to a GM, his philosophy behind trading and more.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: Your path to being an NHL GM isn’t traditional in that you weren’t a former player and instead came up as an agent. Did you always dream of crossing over to the management side, or did that idea come later in your career?

BILL ZITO:
It was something that, since I was a little boy, I had always considered pursuing. When I was a high-school kid, I was a bat boy for the Milwaukee Brewers. The general manager was Harry Dalton, who was a very brilliant man. I think he was a MENSA member, he had gone to Amherst, and he’d cut his teeth scouting. He took me under his wing. It was the 1982 Brewers who went to Game 7 of the World Series. He was so kind to me and afforded me the opportunity. I could go up to his office whenever I wanted, I could learn scouting. He took the time to explain everything to me and always encouraged me to get into the management side. He said, “Maybe you'd like to be a GM someday,” and I would tell him, “Mr. Dalton, want to play hockey.” He said, “OK, well, do it in hockey. If you can't be a hockey player, just get into management. It’s a great career.”

My family and high-school friends joked that, “Billy wants to be Harry Dalton.” So it was always something that was on my mind when I got out of law school. I think I would have considered working in hockey, but I had loans, both undergrad and law school. And I had a relatively significant opportunity in a law firm, so my opportunity cost was such that it wasn't like I could even try to get in as an entry-level scout. And I had a great job as an appellate litigator. So I just went down that route into the little agency on the side.

Then, when I started my own agency after about two years, I think about five years in, I got a couple of calls – would I perhaps like to be an assistant GM?– and investigated a little bit.

THN: Because of your agent background, you've seen both sides of the coin in terms of having relationships with players and understanding how they tick. Does that give you any unique advantages as a GM?

ZITO: I don't know if it's unique anymore given the number of GMs who have had that agent experience. But, certainly, it is a special experience. Sometimes when I talk to people, I mention using the agent experience almost as “hockey university,” because, if you're so inclined, you can learn through the experience of your players. So, you're learning what the development process is, how the strength and conditioning programs are, how the diet programs are, what the mental-skills and mental-health systems are in each organization. You’re learning how the coaches interact with the players or how they don’t, how they communicate, how they don’t, how the GMs interact with you, how the scouts are on the road, who talks, who doesn't talk. All this information is available to you as an insider.

THN: During your tenure as Columbus Blue Jackets assistant GM, you were mentioned often as a rumored finalist for various GM jobs. Was it frustrating to get passed over? Did you wonder if you’d ever get a shot?

ZITO: No, because some of those news snippets that you referenced I'm not sure were exactly open casting. For some of them, perhaps there might have been situations where they had a candidate and they decided to interview some other folks, but some other circumstances beyond my control would have had to happen for that candidacy to become tangible. So, it was more of a process, and I was happy to go through it and of course honored to even be considered to be part of the process.

And you can always learn something. I am very, very fortunate, How lucky are we to be working in this business at all, right? I had a wonderful, wonderful job and great people in Columbus. So, I was pretty – I don't think content is the word I ever use for myself – but no, I really didn't get frustrated.

THN: In your first season as Panthers GM, you were extremely active making tangible major changes to that team, whether it was bringing in Anthony Duclair or Patric Hornqvist or Sam Bennett. Did you take the job knowing you’d make immediate aggressive moves?

ZITO: Yes, but I have to say, and I’ve said it before, there’s some pretty good players here. The blueprint, the framework, however you wanted to call it, the core, when you’re looking at Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Sergei Bobrovsky, MacKenzie Weegar, (arriving with them already on the team): “All right, here we go.” So, I had an idea that we had to make some changes, and we did, but I'd be remiss to not point out that there were some pretty significant pieces there, some wonderful hockey players already here, guys you can’t get.

THN: Do you think being an aggressive deal maker is part of your overall philosophy as a GM? Or did it simply happen in Year 1 based on the stage the franchise was in?

ZITO: I don't think there was a philosophy attached to it so much as I think it's incumbent upon any GM to consider anything and everything. So, if you can get better, isn’t that my job? If you think you can improve your team, you have to pursue it. So, it wasn't as if I woke up every day saying, “Well, I'm not going to do a deal today, because I've done too many,” or, “Enough is enough.” It was, “We need to get better here. Can we? Is it reasonable to think that what we have to pay would characterize as improvement?” And then pursue it. So that was really, that's still really the mindset. I guess we've reached a point, too, where we certainly don't want addition to be disruptive to the collective. That's the danger now.

THN: After Joel Quenneville resigned as head coach in the wake of revelations about his role in the Chicago Blackhawks scandal, you expressed confidence that Andrew Brunette would excel in his place as a head coach. What about Andrew made you so confident?

ZITO: Do you know him at all?

THN: It’s been a while, but in dealing with him in the past, one takeaway was that he was an extremely funny guy.

ZITO: Yes, so I would just swap “funny” with “witty,” because that would infer a high level of intellect. He’s very smart, he has a personality that is non-threatening, he's welcoming in the way that he shares ideas. I don’t know if “co-architect” is the right word, but he was hand in hand with Joel and the other coaches in building this thing. So I felt that the players deserved the right to continue the way things were going. I thought Andrew was capable of leading them, and it just fit. He certainly has the hockey acumen. He has leadership. He has the work ethic, he has the intelligence, the integrity, and the character. So he didn't have the experience as a head coach: well, OK, I was willing, we were willing to take the chance, because he deserved it and the players deserved it. There was no reason to bring something new to the mix.

THN: Every GM builds a team hoping it will excel. But would you say the Panthers have exceeded your expectations in the first year and a half?

ZITO: That’s a tough one to answer. From the first day I got here to today, I don't think I would have told you we’d be sitting here where we are. I do think that we still have a lot of work to do to continue to sit where we are, no question about it. I really, sincerely believe that we have a wonderful team. And on many nights, it's the strength of the team that is getting us through. Maybe that's the thing I'm most proud of. As a group, that respect and care for one another is really starting to resonate.

This is an extended version of an interview that appears in the 2022 Money & Power edition of The Hockey News.

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