Brett Peterson of the Florida Panthers recently joined the Yahoo Sports Hockey Podcast to discuss his path to becoming the first Black man to hold an assistant general manager position in the NHL, his thoughts and emotions watching the NHL players’ stand again racism and intolerance while competing in the bubble, and the league’s relationship with the Hockey Diversity Alliance. Here’s an excerpt from the interview found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Youtube.
Justin Cuthbert: Now that you have had the chance to settle into your role, to start putting your expertise into practice, have you been able to reflect on the barrier that you knocked down? I imagine this is a significant source of pride for you and your family?
Brett Peterson: Yeah, but I’m more excited for the game of hockey and the National Hockey League, that we’re continuing to expand, move forward, and let more people enjoy our great game. It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind, but I’m happy to start settling in.
JC: Are you having to weigh (that excitement) at all with feelings of, ‘Well, perhaps it shouldn’t have taken this long?’
BP: Yeah, I mean I think that’s natural for everybody. But I guess I’m always a forward thinker so I’m just happy that now there can be others, seconds and thirds, and we can keep continuing to grow our footprint, meaning the NHL and hockey players in general. (If we) expand it, hopefully we can get a wider range of people involved in the game.
JC: What sort of response have you heard in the months since taking the job, from inside the hockey community, from the business world you came from, from inside the other communities you belong to on a personal level?
BP: The reaction from the hockey community has been exactly what I’ve always experienced as a hockey player — welcoming, excitement, friendships. A lot of these friendships are lifelong friendships. That, universally, has been amazing. Personally growing up with a non-traditional hockey background, a very blue-collar upbringing in terms of family, their reaction has been exciting. You can just see that they are excited that something (bigger) is happening. It motivates a lot of people and helps kick-start imaginations for other people. It’s been amazing.
JC: It’s Black History Month, and the NHL has its way of celebrating that. But the month, and the NHL’s efforts, also shine the light on the issues the league has had with inclusivity and representation. I think it would be wrong to suggest that the league hasn’t made progress in this regard, but in your mind, is the NHL doing enough this month? Is it doing enough in general? What can it do better? What needs to happen for the NHL to be operating in a safer, more welcoming space?
BP: I think (the NHL) is doing a great job focusing on and highlighting some of the people that have come along with regards to being of colour and being involved in the game, but what really sticks out for me with the NHL, and (Florida Panthers owner Vinnie Viola) in particular, is that the goal is not to make it just this month. We’re trying to make this, ‘This is another day, this is Tuesday, this is Thursday. And this is how we carry ourselves through.’ I think (the NHL and the Panthers) have taken some monumental steps in the last year in terms of heading in the right direction and anything I can do to help and support them I’m looking forward to.
JC: It might be hard for you to compare, and I know you have said that your experience has been largely positive throughout, but how do you think the playing experience has changed for non-white players over the years? Are there fewer obstacles now? Do you believe that this is a safer space for everyone chasing a career in hockey?
BP: No question. There is a lot more representation than there was when I was going through it, right? The hockey community is an amazing place. So people, for the most part, were always welcoming. But growing up as a kid, there were certain places where maybe in the back of your mind (you would think), ‘I don’t know how comfortable I feel going there or doing this.’ I think that’s really gone by the wayside. The game continues to push forward. It continues to be a safe place, and that’s what we really want. We really want a place for people to go and enjoy and experience life.
JC: I’m assuming you were at home in the summer months when Matt Dumba took a knee, and the players stood unified in Edmonton resulting the postponement of games after another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by police. What sort of emotions were you experiencing watching that unfold?
BP: I thought it was amazing. We’re watching change in our world happen right before our eyes. It was very powerful. It was also probably hard, very risky what (Matt Dumba) did, leading up to that point. But the thing that struck me was the rush from the rest of the community to join and start to educate themselves on things they had no idea existed. That’s the best thing we can do. In anything in life, we just try to be better every day. The more people we have involved in our game that are willing to stop, listen, and start the conversation, it’s going to help us dramatically.
JC: The Hockey Diversity Alliance played a major role in the discussion over the summer and since, but for whatever reason a disconnect remains between the NHL and HDA. I welcome you to comment on that if you wish, but can you explain the importance of a group like the Hockey Diversity Alliance having a seat at the table?
BP: The players have earned the right to have that platform. They have reached extraordinary heights. I’m happy these guys have created a group where they can be vocal and they can be themselves. But it’s new, right? It’s going to (evolve), what those relationships and those interactions are. But I think when both sides get themselves steadily on the ground, it’s going to be an amazing resource for both to have, to work together in tandem. I think that’s something on the horizon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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