The relationship between Bill Zito and Brett Peterson goes back to when the two met for a cup of coffee in Chicago more than a decade ago. Zito was working as an agent for Acme Sports at the time and was running a summer camp for clients in the area. Zito clients Patrick and Ben Eaves asked Zito if Peterson, a defenseman who was bouncing around the minors at the time, could take part in the camp. The Eaves brothers then urged Zito to meet with Peterson to gauge his interest in becoming an agent.
“We’re having a coffee and all of a sudden he’s like, ‘Yeah, I was wondering if you’d represent me,’ ” Zito recalled. “And I’m thinking, “Aw, man, that’s all I need, another East Coast League guy.’ What am I going to say? No?”
Peterson went on to play one more unspectacular season in 2008-09, splitting his time among the American and International Leagues and the ECHL, but the bond he and Zito formed stuck. Zito went on to hire Peterson to work with him at the agency and then plucked him out of the agent ranks to be one of his two assistant GMs with the Florida Panthers. And in doing so, he made Peterson the first Black assistant GM in NHL history. Just days after Kim Ng became the first woman in history to be named GM of a Major League Baseball team, the front offices in sports leagues are opening up. In the next couple of days, it’s expected that former NHLer Joel Ward will be named an assistant coach with the Henderson Silver Knights of the AHL, the primary affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“He has a positive energy that is unbelievable,” Zito said of Peterson. “He knows hockey, he knows development, he knows the business end. Knowing the negotiation part, knowing the CBA, understanding the nuances, knowing the other agents and people on the teams, even the recruiting end. This guy is checking every box. This is 100 percent a merit-based, hockey-based blessing for me and for the Panthers. I’ve got more than a decade of history that says this guy has got merit and substance and exactly what we need, but it’s awesome if it helps move the needle.”
Along with fellow GM Paul Krepelka, himself a former agent, Peterson makes for a rather interesting agent-heavy dynamic in the Panthers’ front office. Peterson joined Acme right after he retired as a player and has been working there as an NHL Players’ Association certified agent since. Acme was bought out by the Wasserman Media Group this past summer. Peterson said he hadn’t given much thought to being the first Black assistant GM until recently.
“I didn’t think much about it until everything kind of hit me,” Peterson said. “But it obviously is a big thing for our sport and a lot of other people in the world. I’m excited and truly honored. I’m excited to maybe be a part of something that can create something for somebody else.”
After a four-year career with Boston College during which he won a national championship, Peterson slugged it out in the minors for five years before turning his energies to the agent business. And now he’ll get a chance to put what he learned there to use on the other side of the industry. Zito said Peterson will be in charge of college free agents, with some contract work and scouting, both pro and amateur mixed in. “And the nice thing about (Peterson) is he’s plug and play,” Zito said. “I’ll be able to say, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ and he’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know.’ OK, done. I don’t have to worry about it.”
Well, there’s a lot of work to do in South Florida, so Peterson won’t have any shortage of things to accomplish. Zito thinks he’s going to be great on the management side. As for Ward, there’s no doubt he’ll be an excellent coach. Who better to work with Vegas’ pro prospects than a guy who signed as a free agent after playing Canadian university hockey, then going on to play more than 700 career games?
Who knows, perhaps Peterson and Ward will rise the ranks simultaneously, becoming the first Black GM and second Black head coach in NHL history. Dirk Graham coached the Chicago Blackhawks in 1998-99. “Let’s see if we can get this plane to fly first,” Peterson said. “One step at a time for me.”