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Florida Panthers are near the top in the NHL in wins. And they're trying to win off the ice, too

Brett Peterson.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
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WLRN
Brett Peterson, the NHL's first Black assistant GM, stands near the Florida Panther's ice rink in the FLA Live Arena, Sunrise, Florida. February 23, 2022

After former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the National Football League, conversations surrounding race and equality of opportunity grew even louder across professional sports leagues.

And that conversation, from the pigskin to the puck, has reached the National Hockey League, where current and former players have used their #TapeOutHate campaign to call out the NHL and other professional hockey leagues for a series of racist incidents.

The NHL has been trying to produce a more inclusive workforce and fanbase through its “Hockey is for Everyone" initiative. But for years, the predominantly white league has also faced criticism for its lack of diversity in its senior positions. Just under a 30 minute drive north from the Dolphins stadium, the Florida Panthers, one of the top teams in the NHL, are trying to improve its demographic makeup.

Brett Peterson was named the Assistant General Manager of the Florida Panthers in late 2020. The longtime hockey veteran became the NHL’s first Black assistant GM. Peterson went to school with Flores at Boston College.

Peterson shared his hockey experience alongside executives and former players at the “Black Faces in Uncommon Places" panel discussion, hosted by the Panthers and The Black Sports Professionals' South Florida Chapter. The event was part of the Panthers' 28 Days of Black Excellence at the FLA Live Arena, a month-long spotlight of impactful trailblazers.

After the panel discussion, Peterson spoke to WLRN just a few feet from the ice rink — he discussed his reaction to being the first Black assistant GM, thoughts on improving race relations within the NHL, and his thoughts on Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL.

“It's very important to the NHL … it's extraordinarily important to the Florida Panthers that they be inclusive. This is a time where the world is changing as a whole and we're at the forefront of that change,” said Peterson, while acknowledging that South Florida is home to many different cultures.

“The background of being a Black general manager, the first Black general manager, it's really just trying to make it so that's not part of the title. And it's just ‘this is a general manager.’"

Peterson said Flores’ ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL will continue to spawn discussions surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. He spoke on behalf of Flores' character, coaching prowess, and all of the off-the-field responsibilities coaches tend to have — being “mentors and guides" for players.

Peterson said Flores, who recently joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as defensive assistant/linebackers coach, is just trying to be a coach.

“I don't know their [NFL] business. I don't know all the surrounding circumstances to Brian's situation, but I do know Brian Flores. And I do know that he's a good person. I do know that he's a very good coach,” said Peterson.

Prior to joining the Panthers, Peterson served as the Vice President of Hockey for Wasserman Media Group. He has been a NHLPA certified agent since 2009 and played five years of professional hockey as a defenseman — in the NHL, the American Hockey League (AHL), ECHL and the International Hockey League (IHL). In 2001, Peterson won a NCAA National Championship with Boston College.

Peterson said team cohesiveness requires an undying respect for one's cultural and ethnic background because it’s what shapes solidarity in an organization and that diversity is actually good for business. He calls the Panthers team and management “a brotherhood” who “battle for each other every night.”

“So from the management aspect of it, it's really just supporting the players and the coaches and allowing them the ability to to be as great as they are,” Peterson said.

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Matt Krichell
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A few executives and former players speak at the Florida Panther's "Black Faces in Uncommon Places" panel discussion: (from the far left) Peter Worrell, Brett Peterson, Staci Golden, and Thomas Eugene | February 23, 2022

Before pulling Peterson to the side for a WLRN interview, other former Black players and current executives at the “Black Faces in Uncommon Places” panel spoke about their professional journey, the profitability and innovation of diverse companies, the expensive barrier of entry into hockey for young, diverse youth, and how to recruit new faces in the industry.

Peter Worrell, a former youth and collegiate coach and NHL defenseman who played seven seasons for the Panthers and the Colorado Avalanche, said the business playing field often feels different for Black coaching prospects across sports leagues.

“It has been disheartening to see over the years, not that coaches aren’t getting hired — it just doesn’t seem like they have the same type of career path,” said Worrell. “And they have to be absolutely perfect to even keep a job, let alone get a second job. And I think that’s the most frustrating part.

“Anybody wants just the opportunity. We're all competitors. We all want to be the best that we can be. And demonstrate what we’re capable of.”

Peter now serves as the Hockey Director of the Florida Panthers IceDen, where he’s managing and overseeing youth and adult hockey programs.

Staci Golden is a sports executive whose experience spans through the NHL (Florida Panthers), MLS (Colorado Rapids), NFL (Miami Dolphins) and the NBA (Miami Heat). She serves as the Director of General and Premium Membership Services for the Florida Panthers.

“My opportunity came from a Black woman that was a manager here, who said that it was OK, come over here. You can do this as well. I’ll help you out. I’ll guide you," said Golden. "So it’s about being in these spaces and reaching back and saying ‘come over to hockey.’”

Golden is seeing incremental strides in both race and gender, but young, aspiring sports professionals coming through the pipeline need long-term developmental support.

“Women have come a long way. You’ll see that we’re making deeper dives in the sports industry daily,” said Golden. “And it’s great to finally see that we’re getting that respect. Whoever thought we’d have Becky Hammonds, Sarah Thomas, and Kim Ng.”

Thomas Eugene helps lead the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Multicultural efforts for the Florida Panthers and the FLA Live Arena. Prior to joining the Panthers in February 2020, Thomas spent 12 seasons as Senior Account Executive in Group Sales for the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium.

Eugene said keeping talent is just as important as attracting them, to “make sure that we have the developmental tools for an individual to have growth within the organization.”

The director said part of attracting new faces into hockey requires the league to improve how the “brand is perceived in the community.”

“We don’t want you to just work here, we want you to grow and be happy here,” said Eugene. “Relationships don't have an expiration date.”