Normally, the hiring of an Assistant General Manager is the type of August NHL move that comes and goes virtually without notice, eliciting more yawns than commentary. However, the Columbus Blue Jackets attracted a lot of attention yesterday when they announced the hiring of Bill Zito as Assistant General Manager. Why? Well, Zito made his name as the co-founder of Acme World Sports — a player agent operation based jointly in Chicago and Helsinki. While the crossover of player agents into the realm NHL front offices is not unprecedented, the hockey community took immediate notice. After all, this is not a guy who represented a few peripheral players. He is, by all accounts, an incredibly astute businessman, with a terrific nose for both talent and the economics of the professional contractual arrangements in the NHL. With an undergraduate degree from Yale, and a law degree from Wisconsin, he brings added intellectual depth and experience to a front office that may soon earn The Brain Trust moniker.
Zito and Markus Lehto founded Acme in 1995, with Zito handling the North American talent pool, and Lehto responsible for the other side of the water, including Finland. It does not take a huge logical leap to assume that the Finnish connection put Zito within Jarmo Kekäläinen’s sphere of influence — and that assumption would be correct. The Blue Jacket’s GM has a long-standing friendship with Zito, and from all accounts, the mutual respect is off the charts. The commentators at SiriusXM NHL Network Radio were suitably impressed, noting that the Blue Jackets had formed one of the more formidable hockey operations casts in the league, and that adding somebody with Zito’s intellect, experience, and understanding of the player side of the equation could pay big dividends for the club down the line.
In his discussion with the NHL Network Radio team, Zito indicated that he was not entirely sure of the full range of his responsibilities and duties as yet, but was enthused to join the organization and noted that the “opportunity came together very quickly.” The plan is for his family to relocate to Columbus, and he suggested that family considerations played a significant role in his decision to join the club. This has been a common theme among recent acquisitions, both on the ice and off, and speaks well for the reputation that both the city and the organization are building.
Speaking of building, you have to be impressed with the hockey operations organization that is now steering the S.S. Blue Jackets. Davidson, Kekalainen, MacFarland, Zito, Patrick. That’s a lot of talent, a lot of brain power and a lot of savvy experience on all sides of hockey scouting and personnel transactions. Although “brick by brick” is the organizational mantra, this is nothing short of an organizational transformation, and the rest of the NHL is taking notice.
In terms of other developments, the hockey world is beginning to rouse from the doldrums of August — which came a lot more quickly this year, due to the deferred end of the playoffs. We’re only 33 days away from the pre-season opener at home vs. Pittsburgh, and just a few days away from the semi-official start to the season countdown: Cannonfest IV. If you’ve never been there, it is a great way to get the hockey energy flowing, meet fellow fans, including all of us here at The Union Blue, and see the latest video creations from the irrepressible Tom Larrow. To whet your appetite, check out one of the creations from the 2011 event:
This year’s event is at the Buffalo Wild Wings in the Bethel Centre, 5240 Bethel Centre Mall, Columbus. The proceedings begin at 1:00 PM and last until 4:00 . . . or whenever. It’s a full-family opportunity to share some hockey love and get ready for the season, so carve some time out of your day and make it up there.
In another sign that things are gearing up for a new season, the Blue Jackets have Episode 4 of their terrific Behind the Battle series up and running, covering Draft Day this June. It’s a terrific insight into the inner workings of the organization surrounding one of the few critical days of the year for any NHL squad. Another job well done by the club!
Finally, I’ll be kicking things into high gear here at The Union Blue, taking a look at seven critical questions the club faces as they prepare for the season, looking at the benefits and drawbacks of the long-term contracts that were signed this season, and taking a closer look at what life in the Eastern Conference promises to bring — both for the fans and the players. Stay tuned, it’s going to be fun!