Peterson's well-earned role with Panthers opens door for who will come next

There was no grand plan to turn Brett Peterson into a hockey player.

In fact, the man who just became the first Black assistant general manager in NHL history only originally found himself on skates through a twist of fate: When he was a young boy his mother, Jackie, tutored some college hockey players at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Mike Addesa, the men’s coach at R.P.I., came up with a quid pro quo agreement.

“As kind of a part of repayment for helping the hockey team, tutoring them, the hockey coach … traded some free lessons for me to get on the ice,” Peterson said Tuesday after being hired by the Florida Panthers. “So I used to get on the ice before the hockey team came out and push a crate around. I didn’t come from a hockey background at all. I just kind of fell in love with the sport and picked it up from there. It was very random.

“I had a bunch of energy I guess when I was a kid and they were looking to get some of it out, and that’s what we came up with.”

That unlikely introduction has shaped the arc of his professional life.

Peterson went on to play NCAA hockey himself, winning a national championship with Boston College in 2001, and enjoyed a five-year pro career split between the ECHL and American Hockey League. He then transitioned to the agent business with Acme World Sports in 2009 and remained there through a merger with Wasserman Hockey earlier this year.

(Boston College Athletics)

Then his old boss came calling.

It was Bill Zito, the Panthers general manager, who originally hired Peterson at Acme. And now he’s bringing him into a unique NHL front office that also features AGM Paul Krepelka, another former player agent.

“We go way back,” Peterson said of Zito.

This is in many ways a typical story of how career progression tends to go in the hockey world -- except for the fact Peterson is Black. Whether as a player, or an agent, he didn’t have too many others who looked like him holding the kind of jobs he might eventually aspire to.

That’s why Peterson sought out Eustace King of O2K Worldwide Management during one of his first NHLPA annual agent meetings. They were the only Black player representatives at that point in time.

However, the 39-year-old didn’t feel overly discouraged about his long-term career prospects because he’d grown up in the hockey world.

“It didn’t really factor too much in any of my decision-making just because having been a hockey player for my whole life -- since the age of two -- you kind of got used to not seeing as many people around, right?” said Peterson. “I just kind of cultivated the good people, I guess. That was always my goal and that’s still going to be my goal.”

Still, there’s no denying the significance of his own hiring for those coming next. Much like Kim Ng, who became GM of the Miami Marlins last week, Peterson climbed to this position entirely through his own hard work and prior work experience.

But he’s smashing through a door on behalf of a lot of others at the same time.

“It’s really hard to put into words: It’s an honour. It’s something that never in my wildest dreams would I have even thought would be possible,” said Peterson. “I’m just happy that now there can be a second and a third.”

Peterson’s exact duties within the Panthers hockey operations department are still taking shape, but the team expects him to play an active role in community-based programs aimed at making the sport more inclusive.

That’s something he’s been involved with before as part of some Boston-area charitable efforts.

“The game’s been great to me,” said Peterson. “I just want to help open up doors and hopefully help grow our footprint ... in terms of getting people excited about not only the Florida Panthers and our product, but the game of hockey in general because there’s just a wide range of opportunities that I think people don’t even know existed to them.”

He’s lived it.

Remember that Peterson comes from a family with no prior history or attachment to the game. There were even times his father, Daryl, might have wished young Brett never fell in love with hockey in the first place.

“I think my dad would probably tell you he regrets that with how much the sport costs, but he’s happy probably now,” said Peterson.

He should be awfully proud, too.

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