Bill Zito has come a long way since his days as bat boy for the Milwaukee Brewers.

From a World Series appearance as a teenage bat boy to the Stanley Cup Final as an NHL general manager, it’s a life lived indeed.

The Florida Panthers took a chance on Zito in September 2020, handing him his first NHL GM job after the former player agent turned AGM with the Columbus Blue Jackets took several swings at GM jobs elsewhere.

Zito interviewed for GM openings with the Buffalo Sabres (Jason Botterill was hired), Minnesota Wild (Paul Fenton was hired), Wild again (Bill Guerin got it), Carolina Hurricanes (owner Tom Dundon ended up not hiring a GM after interviewing several candidates, naming team president Don Waddell GM instead), Philadelphia Flyers (Chuck Fletcher got it), Edmonton Oilers (Ken Holland got it) and New Jersey Devils (where ownership interviewed several people, including Zito, before ultimately promoting interim GM Tom Fitzgerald to the full-time job).

All of which to say, Zito hasn’t taken the easy road to where he is today. He’s had to be patient. For starters, he took a risk leaving his player agency business. Acme World Sports, a firm he established in 1995, had represented the likes of Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, John Madden, Kimmo Timonen and Brian Rafalski. He jumped into a whole new world as AGM of the Blue Jackets in 2013.

So when the Panthers announced this week that they had signed Zito to a multiyear extension (his previous deal was expiring after next season) plus promoted him to the title of president of hockey operations, one had to sit back and consider the path traveled.

“You feel very fortunate, blessed and humbled,” were Zito’s first words when we connected over the phone Monday night. “I feel so grateful to the Violas (the owners of the team) for the opportunity.

“And for the opportunity to be part of something. You know, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the chance to get a real good bunch of people together here who are like-minded. To be able to be part of it is a privilege.”

It’s been quite a journey. One still missing a Stanley Cup, but Zito’s built a team in Florida that can take swings at it not just this year but for multiple years.

“One of the blessings here is the core group,” Zito said. “They’re not just good players, they’re great people.

“And the group of people that I get to work with every day, and learn from and interact with and get challenged by, it’s so extraordinary.”

Team USA Olympic GM Bill Guerin has gotten to know Zito well, and they now will work together as part of the country’s management group for 4 Nations and the Olympics.

“Honestly I love Billy,” Guerin said Tuesday. “No. 1, as a person, him and I have become closer over the past 10 years or so when we were both assistant GMs. He’s one of the smartest people I know. He thinks differently. I really respect that. He thinks out of the box, he’s aggressive.

“There’s always something going on upstairs. I just think the world of him.”

The Panthers have just four players left on their NHL roster from when Zito was named GM on Sept. 2, 2020: captain Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Sergei Bobrovsky and Eetu Luostarinen. The first three are big-time, key veterans to be sure.

Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad have been part of the Panthers’ core since before Bill Zito arrived as GM. (James Guillory / USA Today)

Zito makes a point to tip the hat to former Panthers GM Dale Tallon for leaving behind a strong core and good assets to inherit.

“I showed up to some pretty good players here,” Zito said. “A little bit of a testament to Dale, right?”

But Zito has been as aggressive as any GM in the league in adding to his core, trading for the likes of Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk and Brandon Montour. There was also his low-key signing of Carter Verhaeghe, his waiver claim of Gustav Forsling, etc.

“Billy has done an outstanding job reshaping the Panthers,” Waddell said Tuesday.

“Going back to his days as an agent, I have always found Bill to be a creative, out-of-the-box thinker,” Tampa Bay Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said. “It served him well then and it continued to serve him well once he got into team management. He has proven himself to be a thoughtful and bold GM, and his leadership has contributed to the Panthers becoming a top team in the League since his hiring.”

Some first-time GMs sit on their hands too much, reluctant to get beat in a trade. That was not Zito.

Not every first-time GM gets to their second contract. That’s just a fact of life in the fast lane. And some of those first-time GMs never get another shot.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly over the years from veteran GMs is how, over time, they have to learn to delegate more. When one becomes GM, you realize your butt is on the line with every decision. The buck stops with you. That’s an overwhelming feeling and often what you see with first-time GMs is that they feel the need to check in on every single facet every single day. GMs have to learn to grow into a place where they know they have people taking care of certain things and must learn to let go a little.

To this, Zito took a deep breath before answering.

“Everything you said is accurate and spot on,” he said. “It’s a little different for me because I did have a sports agency, so running a business is something I had experience with.”

“With the knowledge of the interaction you just referenced and my own personal experience, I still don’t get it right,” he added with a laugh. “It’s still hard to delegate. I struggle.”

Bill Zito and Panthers coach Paul Maurice address the media before the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. (Lucas Peltier / USA Today)

Zito can laugh at himself about it because he hopes it’s something he will get better at over time. But it all comes from a place of caring so much about every little detail in the day-to-day operation of the hockey side of the franchise.

He truly lives and dies with every win or loss.

In the meantime, Zito has tried to absorb as much knowledge as possible from people around the league.

He points to a Board of Governors call during the pandemic when Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs made a comment to the group at large that really stuck with him.

“He said, ‘Somebody smart once told me no one ever listens themselves into trouble,’” Zito said. “I thought that was real interesting. I know I need to do a better job of it. And I think probably everybody could.”

Right now, it’s all about the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers are hoping for another deep run.

The offseason will be busy as always, Reinhart is a pending unrestricted free agent having a career season. One of the things I found interesting a couple of weeks ago talking to Reinhart about his impending contract decision, is that he mentioned his comfort level with Zito as a factor as to why he’s not stressed out about not having signed an extension yet.

“I think the relationship that we have, me and Billy, me and the organization, it’s all positive, all mutual,” Reinhart said. “I’m very comfortable with it being ongoing. We’ve got bigger things in mind the next couple of months, hopefully. But I’m not losing sleep over it by any means.”

That feeling is mutual.

“I have nothing but respect for Sam and it’ll get done at the right time,” Zito reiterated Monday night.

If Reinhart stays, no doubt it will be for less than what his market demand would be on July 1. But who can blame him if he’s willing to take less?

They’ve built something special in South Florida. And everyone wants a piece of it.

(Top photo of Bill Zito: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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