Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito’s unique journey took him from an MLB dugout to the Stanley Cup Finals

As a teenager growing up in Milwaukee, Bill Zito had the opportunity to be a bat boy for baseball’s Brewers during a time when Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Cecil Cooper led them to the World Series of 1982.

It was sort of the first championship final of a major sport that Zito experienced from the inside, but he wasn’t nearly as involved as he was as general manager of the Panthers. Florida preparing to play the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Brewers’ general manager at the time was a man named Harry Dalton, a Korean War veteran and briefly a sportswriter who rose through the ranks of the Baltimore Orioles organization and, nearly 25 years later his debut, was managing his third team with the Brewers.

Dalton took Zito under his wing, seeing a unique work ethic in the young man. Zito dreamed of being a hockey player, but a professional career was beyond his reach.

“Well, if you’re not, you should be in the direction then,” Dalton told him, becoming the first person to teach Zito the importance of being a good scout.

Zito often visited his office and Dalton took the time to show him the inner workings of the Brewers organization. It was an amazing learning experience.

Zito eventually left for Yale University, where he played for the varsity team, and became an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin while finishing his law degree.

“I would have liked to go into scouting and management, but I didn’t have the financial situation where I could accept a small salary because I had my university and my law school loan,” Zito said during from an interview last spring. “And my opportunity cost was a pretty big job as a lawyer, and I enjoyed that.

“So I did that and at the same time I represented players, and then I finally left that, and I just represented players and started Acme.”

Acme World Sports was the agency Zito started in 1995 with Markus Lehto, who today represents players like Roope Hintz, Teuvo Teravainen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi for Wasserman, the premier sports agency that bought Acme in 2020.

“My whole background was pretty unique,” Zito said.

Earlier this week, Zito was selected as a finalist for General Manager of the Year, which surprised some as the Panthers nearly missed the playoffs this season. The General Manager of the Year award is voted on by league general managers after the second round of the playoffs, not at the end of the regular season like other awards.

Zito deserves a lot of credit for acquiring the skater with the biggest impact in the playoffs so far when he sealed the blockbuster deal to land Matthew Tkachuk last summer, but the former assistant to Jarmo Kekäläinen in Columbus also stamped his fingerprints all over these Panthers. list that he transformed in the space of three years.

Zito acquired former high draft picks who wanted to win and needed a change of scenery in Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett, he bet on defenders who were hitting their best years but couldn’t realize their potential elsewhere. to Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling, and signed Carter Verhaeghe as a free agent, which has been steadily paying dividends since 2020.

So it goes far beyond the trade that sent key players Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for Tkachuk, and the fact that Zito was nominated by his peers for the second time in three years is. reflect.

Yes, Zito’s journey has been unique because it’s rooted in an experience he had in another sport, but also because he’s one of the few general managers in the NHL to have also been a players.

There was a 15-month gap between Zito’s hiring in Florida in September 2020 and the Vancouver Canucks’ hiring of former agent Emilie Castonguay as assistant general manager in January 2022. Kent Hughes was named Habs GM and Zito’s former Acme colleague Brett Pederson joined as assistant GM in Florida. The Panthers’ other AGM, Paul Krepelka, is also a former agent.

It’s tempting to see this as a trend, but it’s not like agents becoming GMs are a recent phenomenon. Brian Burke left the player agent game to become general manager of the Canucks in 1987 and took over the Hartford Whalers in 1992. Two years later, former agent Pierre Lacroix took over the Quebec Nordiques. And since the turn of the century, when it’s become a little more common, the proportion of GMs with experience as agents has remained relatively stable.

Today, the role of a GM has become much more complex, requiring not only managerial skills, but also a deeper understanding of a player’s needs to reach their full potential. Zito has always seen his work as an agent as a stepping stone to a possible management job — Hughes expressed the same idea when he arrived in Montreal — but he recognizes the advantages of his previous experience in his current job.

“The one thing you need to understand is that agents have an inside view, through the lives and existence of their players, of the inner workings of all NHL organizations, or at least those in which they have players,” he said. “And they can see first hand – and first person in many cases because they’re there with their players – how does Team X develop their players? How are their programs? How are they treated- they? How is their services? How is the food? How is their mental health? How is the communication at the NHL level and at the American League level, and for the draft department? , the AGM, the minor league general manager, the coaches… So you learn all of that about all of these different organizations and you really have the ability to learn a lot from that side.

Zito, Hughes, Castonguay and Krepelka are not only former agents who became NHL executives, they also all studied law in college, as did Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois and the Colorado Avalanche general manager Chris MacFarland, although neither had ever been an agent. And the mindset you develop by studying law, Zito says, is very helpful as a general manager of the NHL.

“In law school, you are taught to find the best answer,” he said. “If you’re building a wall, people usually build a wall and somebody says, ‘Well, we need concrete to plug this hole,’ and the guy will go to Home Depot and get some concrete, come back and say, ‘yeah, it works.’ In law school, they’ll teach you to say, ‘but is this the best concrete here?’

“So a lot of times I’ll ask, ‘Is this the best way to do it? I know it works, but is there still a better way to do it? This can be a real pain in the ass. Someone might look at me and say, ‘why do you want me to do it any different way?’ Because there is a better way. And I don’t even know what the best way is. I’m just asking you, have you considered a better way to do this? Because the margins are so thin. Someone else does it better. This training was therefore very useful.

An annual ritual is currently underway, with NHL teams examining the DNA of conference finalists to find ingredients they could incorporate into their own recipes. The Panthers benefit from a goaltender at the top of his game, although nothing Sergei Bobrovsky has done in recent years would have suggested that such a dominating performance was still in him. Signing a goalie for $10 million a year probably won’t be seen as the way of the future.

But maybe teams will take a closer look at goalie usage and how much gas they have left in the tank once the playoffs begin. Or maybe they’ll look at the relatively small number of very young players in the Panthers’ roster.

But maybe they should look at how the Panthers have created a development track for players like Verhaeghe, Bennett, Montour and Forsling – we might even add Anthony Duclair to the list – and make those key ingredients to their success. .

Acquiring players who couldn’t reach their cap elsewhere at a discount and unlocking their full potential is the secret sauce of professional scouting and talent assessment.

Because in hockey, talent can emerge from anywhere.

Even the Milwaukee Brewers dugout.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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