COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bill Zito didn't hesitate in saying that leaving his prominent hockey agency was a unique situation born from a unique opportunity.
While the idea of a potential move to the "team" side of the business has been a constant thought since he realized he wouldn't be able to crack an NHL roster as a player, Zito didn't have it on the front burner because of his rapidly-accelerating career as a player agent. In 1995, he founded Acme World Sports and less than 20 years later, it's one of the most powerful agencies in professional hockey.
Zito, named an assistant general manager with the Blue Jackets on Monday, has both a personal and professional background with Jarmo Kekalainen - a man he holds in high regard and one who he really wanted to come work for in Columbus.
"We’ve been good friends for a long time," Zito told BlueJackets.com. "(Kekalainen) is a brilliant man and a great person, and one of the few people I would leave (the agency) to learn from and to serve. I can’t say enough about his character, his work ethic and his kindness as a human being. That is a no-brainer for me to be associated with him. With everybody here, it’s a special group.
"That’s something you can tell from the outside -- these guys get it."
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Milwaukee, Zito had hockey running through his blood at a young age. He went on to play four years of hockey at Yale University from 1984-1987, and after his hockey playing career started to wind down, he obtained a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and began practicing.
Not long after that, he ventured into representing hockey players. They weren't the star players by any means, but Zito forged a reputation of finding the unheralded players - those who have either gone undrafted or were taken in later rounds, and several have enjoyed successful NHL careers (most notably goaltender Tim Thomas).
Zito will miss the agency world and the relationships he's forged over two decades, but there has long been a burning desire to be part of something bigger.
"I said this to my clients frequently: I was never good enough to even come close (to playing in the NHL), but I don’t think that my passion or my respect for the game was any less than those guys who were playing in the league," Zito said. "It’s a fiber in me, it’s a part of me and since I was a little boy, I always dreamed of somehow being part of the NHL. From that perspective, working as an agent offered me an opportunity that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
"And to work for a team is really a dream come true – you’re part of something. I did this (agency) for 20 years and I wasn’t a fan; three Stanley Cups ago (in 2010) it was Philly against Chicago and I had six guys playing but I didn’t even enjoy it. I was more concerned about the guys who weren’t going to win it."
Now, Zito can be a fan again and he's genuinely excited about the idea of being part of the Blue Jackets' future. He has some clear ties to the organization - he's also the former agent for James Wisniewski and, as mentioned earlier, a longtime friend of Kekalainen. Like so many around the sport, Zito saw last season what kind of path the Blue Jackets are on.
Long story short: he really likes what he sees in Columbus, both on the ice and off. Zito and his wife are parents of three young children, and the family will be residents of Ohio's capital city in the near future.
"The first thing that comes to mind is hard work and they’re well-prepared," Zito said of the Blue Jackets. "I think it’s no secret that they have a really strong defensive corps and a plethora of really strong young players, and some good veterans. (Nathan) Horton is a really special player that they added.
"At this point in my life and with my new family, it was something where the timing was right. The opportunity, with the people involved, made it even better. This is a wonderful opportunity and I really am so grateful for the chance, and excited and proud to be part of something here."