Panthers assistant general manager Peterson on being a role model and making hockey more accessible

In November 2020, the Florida Panthers named Brett Peterson their assistant general manager. He is believed to be the first black assistant general manager in the history of the National Hockey League.

Peterson, a native of Northborough, Mass., was a defenseman for Boston College and won the NCAA national championship in 2001. After being drafted, he had a five-year professional hockey career in the AHL and ECHL.

He then became a player’s agent at Acme Sports and represented the Boston Bruins goaltender. Tuukka Rask. He eventually became Vice President of Hockey for Wasserman Media Group.

As part of Black History Month, TSN spoke with Peterson about his journey to the Panthers front office and the sport’s diversity efforts.

How did you start hockey? What was your introduction to the sport?

“I was introduced basically out of necessity by my parents. I had a lot of energy as a kid and my mom was a tutor to hockey players. For part of her payment for tutoring hockey players, l college hockey coach at the time was kind enough to put me on the ice and teach me how to skate. That’s how I got into the sport. We didn’t have a [hockey] background as a family, so I got into it that way and fell in love with it from there.

Who was this college coach?

“At the time, we were living in Albany, New York, then we moved to Massachusetts, so I learned to skate at a university, RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], in Troy, New York. The coach at the time was a gentleman named Mike Adessa, who later served as a scout for a long time with the Flames.

During your hockey journey, who were your role models? Who were the players or people you looked up to?

“I used to go to a lot of college hockey games when I was a kid. I started there and my love for the game really blossomed. Back then there were players like Bruce Coles and Graeme Townshend and Joe Juneau, guys that I really admired the way they played. When we moved to the Boston area, you are obviously completely immersed in the hockey culture. From there it’s been a lot of different guys, whether it’s Ray Bourque or Cam Neely, guys that I watched as a kid. Hockey was such a big neighborhood thing back then, so you all emulated those guys when we played outside and street hockey and on people’s ponds or makeshift rinks.

Have you found it difficult when you are a visible minority in sport? Have you experienced racism and what was it like when you were maybe the only player of color on a team?

“It is certain that I experienced it when I went through youth hockey and junior hockey. It’s hard for me to really think that was a huge deterrent in my upbringing because in some ways it made me who I am today, going through some of these processes and instances as a young boy. What I’m really trying to do right now is highlight. I think sometimes we focus too much on the isolated, smaller events where racism and socio-economic issues arise, and I think I’m trying to highlight so many good people who have helped me along the way .

I would say the vast majority who didn’t look like me were people who got me up the ladder. There are a lot of things that I try to point out to get people who aren’t fully immersed in hockey to understand who they really are. [the people in] hockey. Yes, not everyone in hockey is like me, but it’s getting better and better and more and more diverse. At the same time, even when it wasn’t as diverse as it is today, it was a lot of fantastic, wonderful people who went out of their way to support me throughout my journey.

Who are these people and how have they helped you?

“There are so many, but a few are Mike Adessa and Jerry York. Jerry is obviously a legendary figure in the game who didn’t have to go and recruit me from Boston College and give me that platform and win a national championship and then continue to support me in my professional career through continued. Definitely Bill Zito, who is probably one of the biggest champions for me in leading me through different careers, teaching me and guiding me along the way. My coach, Steve Jacobs, he was a guy who when I went to prep school who had never really seen someone like me go through that, he put me in situations to play huge minutes with great hockey players and got me into college. hockey. There were different parents of players I played with who drove me around and helped me with payments and stuff like that for hockey. Just countless people, but there will be many people who have been so instrumental in bringing me here that I should sit here all day and go name by name.

What has the Panthers organization done and how is it addressing diversity and trying to make hockey more accessible?

“I think the way we approach it is we look at people. We look at talent. We want the best people. We want the most talented people who want to collaborate and work together. Some people walk through the door and see a black man or woman, or an Asian man or woman, we just see, “What can you do to help us? I think that’s how the world is going and how it should always be – have the right people no matter what they look like or where they’re from and help us be better.

Hockey has made progress recently. What more can sport do to be more diverse? What are the next steps?

“I think it starts at the top. If you want to make these changes, you can make them. I think from the leadership down, especially with us at the Panthers and ownership, what they’ve done in taking the lead and being ahead in these diversity panels and going above and beyond to be inclusive and sustain, I think it starts from the top down.

“Obviously [NHL executive vice-president of social impact] Kim Davis has done a tremendous job and I commend the NHL for helping her along her way, commissioner [Gary] Bettman and [deputy commissioner Bill] Dally. We are going in the right direction. These things don’t happen overnight. I don’t want it to be just, ‘Let’s get people in here because we’re short on numbers.’ I want to start including people at the lower levels so that naturally, just like me, organically, they move up to those higher seats. Not because they were handpicked, but because they got the job done and wanted to get here. It starts throughout youth hockey and involves more diverse people involved in the game so they can grow and one day get to the point where they can share their gifts with us as well.

Is it difficult to find a balance between being a model and just doing your job?

“I’m just being myself. I think I’ve been in and out of a lot of different circles and the one thing I’ve always been steadfast about is that I am who I am. I allow myself to be who I am and growing. Situations come up and we deal with them one thing at a time. It’s not really overwhelming because you’re just yourself.

What do you hope to accomplish in your NHL front office career?

“Obviously, we always want to reach the highest level. I wanted to get here and couldn’t get there as a player, and now I’m trying to reach the highest possible level as a manager. My main goal right now is to be the best assistant general manager I can be for the Florida Panthers. I think if I do that, I’m not too focused on what lies ahead or ahead of us. When you look too far down the road, you often stumble and fall. Right now we’re focusing on the here and now and two big games this week and we’ll see what happens from there.

Rebecca R. Santistevan