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For Love of the Game

By Jamie MacDonald, 11/30/23, 4:15PM EST


Northborough's Brett Peterson's Mass Hockey pride on full display in all roles

For the love of the game is an easy enough line to deliver, but one would be hard-pressed to better live it than playing more than 300 games in the East Coast Hockey League after a Division I college career that included an NCAA title at Boston College.

Northborough native Brett Peterson certainly had shown hockey the love on the ice throughout his career in Chestnut Hill (2000-04), then with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, Johnstown Chiefs, Florida Everblades and Phoenix Roadrunners (2004-09). Peterson also played a few dozen games in the IHL and AHL across parts of a couple seasons, but it would take a second (and third-ish, going on fourth-ish) career as a certified player agent and vice president of hockey for Wasserman Media Group before reaching the rarefied air of the National Hockey League.

Now, in his fourth season as assistant general manager of the Florida Panthers, Peterson, having been named on Nov. 16, 2023, as general manager of the 2024 U.S. Men’s National Team, has become the first Black executive to serve in that position. Also the first Black assistant general manager in the NHL, Peterson still remembers where it all began.

“It's funny,” he says. “I've talked to a lot of people, and hockey is such a small community, but growing up in Massachusetts Hockey and playing Massachusetts Hockey – and I moved around a little bit, but the bulk of my childhood was in Northborough – you just have so many experiences. So many good memories. Those were some of the best memories for me.”

Still, for a time, friends became enemies in the area.

“When I went to Boston College, well, you grew up with all these guys – it seems like half of your friends went to BU and the other half went to BC – but, I mean, friendships stopped for four years,” says Peterson. “You went from being with someone 18 hours every day, then you go up the street and that’s it. It was the same thing when guys went to the University of Maine or UNH. But there are so many fond memories of just what it meant to be a hockey player from Massachusetts.”

When Peterson arrived at BC, legendary head coach Jerry York’s team was full of talent. Brian Gionta. Krys Kolanos. Chuck Kobasew. Rob Scuderi. Brooks Orpick. That quintet accounted for nearly 200 points in Peterson's freshman season. Peterson played in just about every game that season, scoring a goal and adding six assists as a defenseman.

Growing up, though, youth hockey for Peterson was about … playing. Being on any sort of radar wasn’t on his radar. Even as the stakes grew, hockey retained that joy.

“I've always kind of lived with, ‘If you like something, and you’re enjoying it, and it feels good, then you keep doing it,’” Peterson says. “And that was kind of always my mindset, even when we played USA Hockey [festivals]. Way back then, we used to play a select festival with Team Massachusetts against states and regions. That was a blast. Those were special years because it was Massachusetts against everybody else. When you got on some of those teams, I guess you might feel like you're in a tad bit of uncharted territory. But, at the end of the day, it was just hockey and good laughs and really fun memories. Lifelong friends and friendships.”

At BC, however, things did ramp up that tad bit more. 

“When I went to Boston College, I was being recruited by different schools,” says Peterson. “At that time, in my mind, it was between BC and Michigan. They were right there. And it was a challenge – supposedly this is where the best players play, so let's see where we’re at. And it was a blast. When I got to BC, that may have been the first time where we started to understand the professionalism and what it meant to aspire to be a professional hockey player because everybody was so incredibly serious about their craft.”

Peterson remembers a couple of ah-ha moments.

“For a lot of years, we got by just being athletes and maybe not working on our games,” he says. “But then you see guys out there first thing in the morning, shooting pucks or running the stairs. And you think, ‘Hmm, this is something different.’”

The same can be said for playing under Coach York.

“There are legendary coaches, and, obviously, he goes down in that category,” says Peterson. “But he was such a great manager. I don't think people understand sometimes how hard it is to manage personalities, and people with all sets of different goals, and get them all together to rally around one common idea, which is winning a trophy. I thought he did an excellent job kind of instilling the foundation of what it meant to be a Boston College hockey player – and in tandem with leaving his mark also letting players have room to grow and be who they are. I was very lucky to have that experience.”

It was also likely a building block to what Peterson’s future may hold. There were opportunities for a gifted former player to coach and to enter management. Yet he wasn’t really ready to be a former player. But three … hundred … games in The Coast? 

Was it just love of the game?

“It's exactly what you said, love for the game,” he says. “And I liked the challenge. I wanted to try to climb the ladder. I wanted to push the envelope. It's easy when you’re rewarded by getting to the highest level, but I'll never forget that I played in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

When he told his father he was being sent to the Chiefs, Peterson remembers his father telling him, "We're going to find out how much you like hockey now."

"And I loved it,” Peterson says.

Peterson played nearly 100 games for the team whose name carries the moniker made infamous in “Slap Shot” and for a season under another Massachusetts native in Sandwich's Toby O’Brien.

“I had an absolute blast playing for Toby, playing in Johnstown,” says Peterson. “It was an experience I would never take back. I think it almost speaks to the grind of what it takes to get to this [NHL] level in a different capacity because, you know, there are no easy days. You have to find ways to continue to motivate yourself that, even when you aren't moving – at all – you're convincing yourself you’re moving forward.”

The few dozen games between the AHL and the IHL, and never more than 20 in any one season, versus hundreds in the ECHL. This internal motivation while, as Peterson notes, you aren’t moving, at all, and yet you keep coming back with a progress mindset, that’s more next-level thinking than just about anything.

Taking that understanding to work every day while on the player side and into the team management side can come in handy, too, even if Peterson is now among the best players in the world. That includes the team staff, too.

“For a lot of years, we got by just being athletes and maybe not working on our games. But then you see guys out there first thing in the morning, shooting pucks or running the stairs. And you think, ‘Hmm, this is something different.’”

Head coach Paul Maurice became the youngest head coach to win 1,000 games and is over 1,700 for his career. Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo is on the staff as a Special Advisor to the General Manager. There are former Bruins, too, in Chief Revenue Officer Shawn Thornton, Assistant General Manager Gregory Campbell and Goaltending Coach Robb Tallas.

“I’m extraordinarily lucky to be around some legendary hockey players and very established people who have experienced this game,” Peterson says. “For me, I spend so much time learning from them and trying to instill what I've always done. And maybe they will learn something from me. I have no idea. But we're just trying to get better as a group every day.”

And if playing was a joy, so, too, is what has come since.

“I had opportunities to coach and I looked at those pretty hard, but I think the business side of hockey really caught my attention,” says Peterson. “And being able to impact the game on a higher scale, along with the idea of working closely with players. You can help guys find their center when they might be riding a little high, and, when they're a little bit low, maybe use some of your own experiences to say, ‘This isn't really that bad, actually.’ Working with them and getting to see both sides of it was really what grabbed me. There were a lot of things as a player that I wish I would've known.”

Of course, there is a little bit in it for Peterson, too.

“It's fun,” he says. “You're in sports business but you're talking hockey. You're around competitors. You're in there and you still get those gameday feels. You're still very closely involved in the game. I think when you have good players and good teams, that makes it even more fun.”

It is a good team Peterson aims to put on the ice for the 2024 IIHF Men's World Championship, set for this coming May in Prague and Ostrava, Czechia. Team USA’s Group B includes teams from France, Germany, Kazakhstan and Latvia.

Considering the timing of the annual tournament, assembling teams can present challenges.

“We haven't won it since 1933, so, clearly there's a challenge,” says Peterson. “But that's what's exciting. That's the opportunity. And that was part of the job – an opportunity for us to put USA Hockey, which has made incredible advancements since I was a player, on display, and to be part of something extraordinarily special. So, yeah, it's hard, but if it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be a job with taking.”

Peterson will be assisted by a U.S. Men’s National Team Advisory Group, led by former NHL goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and including Kevyn Adams, Craig Conroy, Chris Drury, Tom Fitzgerald, Mike Grier, Bill Guerin, Lou Lamoriello, Chris MacFarland, Don Waddell and Bill Zito.

Drury, Fitzgerald, Grier, Guerin and Lamoriello are all New England natives, too.

“I've known all of them for years and in numerous situations,” Peterson says. “It's good, being from Massachusetts, and there's a certain amount of pride behind it. And I think that is what we want to instill in the team that we pick, making sure that everybody respectfully understands who we are and where we're from.”

As for the distinction that has made him suddenly very popular on the interview circuit, Peterson isn’t laser focused on it.

“Honestly, it's nice, but I don't really think about it for me,” he says. “I think about it as, ‘I enjoyed hockey and I never saw anything else other than a good hockey player or bad hockey player, this team or that team.’ I think the outside world saw things the way it's being portrayed now, as the first African-American. So, if I can change that perception for people, then I think what I'm most proud of for hockey, for USA Hockey, for Massachusetts Hockey, is that we’re impacting this game that has been around so long. And we can make it better and, hopefully, attract a lot of different people who otherwise might not be looking at it.”