COLUMBUS – Eight months ago, history was truly made in the NHL. Only, it wasn’t a scoring record, or a new champion, but instead, an off-ice move in which the Columbus Blue Jackets made Jarmo Kekäläinen the first European GM in the league’s history.
At the time, Kekäläinen was in the third year of his five-year contract as the GM of Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish league, back on home turf after over a decade of traveling around Europe scouting for the Ottawa Senators and the St. Louis Blues.
“My dream has always been to become a GM in the NHL, and I never gave up that dream when I moved back to Finland to become the GM of Jokerit,” Kekäläinen told IIHF.com.
While Kekäläinen makes North American reporters stumble on his name, and does carry a Finnish passport, he’s not that different from his colleagues around the league.
A teen star, Kekäläinen made his men’s league debut at 17, a Finnish league debut at 19, and played at the World Juniors for Finland. Determined to get to the NHL, he went to Clarkson University - where he studied business - and played well, making the Eastern College Athletic Conference first all-star team, before signing an NHL contract with the Boston Bruins.
In the fall of 1991, the speedy winger found himself on the Finnish national team roster in the Canada Cup – even though he played the following season back in KalPa Kuopio, his alma mater. He got another stab at the NHL, and played 28 games with the Ottawa Senators in 1993/1994 before injuries forced him to retire after one last season in Sweden in 1995. He was 28 years old.
It was time to put the business degrees - bachelor's from Clarkson, master's from Tampere, Finland - to work.
After a year as a player agent, Kekäläinen was hired as the GM of Helsinki IFK, while also scouting for the Senators. In his first year, HIFK missed the playoffs, the second year they won the Finnish title, and in his third year, they lost the final to TPS Turku.
In the next ten years, Kekäläinen made a name for himself as a super-scout in both Ottawa and later in St. Louis. Last winter, John Davidson, the President of Hockey Operations in Columbus, said in an interview that “Jarmo saved our bacon” in St. Louis.
While he was a good scout, and a respected one, there was an itch that Kekäläinen had to scratch. He wanted to be a part of a team. Also, when he was passed over when the Blues shuffled their executive chairs, the decision to go back to Helsinki became all the more easier.
“The biggest reason for me to take the job as Jokerit GM was that I wanted to build a team again. I missed that part of the job, and I figured that if I didn’t make that break now, I’d be scouting for the rest of my life,” he says.
“It didn’t matter that I had a good reputation as a scout, I just wasn’t ready to make that my life’s work. I have a good education, and have been a GM in Helsinki which is a great hockey town, and I knew that being a GM was the closest thing to my heart, after playing the game,” he adds.
Early 2013, the stars aligned just right. His former boss, John Davidson, had been named President of Hockey Operations in Columbus a few months earlier - and when he removed Scott Howson form the GM's chair, he turned to a familiar face. Now Kekäläinen is finally doing the thing he loves the most, building a championship NHL team in Ohio.
“I’m sure my reputation as a scout helped me. I don't think anything I did in the Finnish league mattered as much as what I showed in my work with the Senators and the Blues. And of course, John Davidson knew me well,” he says.
Kekäläinen has lived over 15 years, most of his adult life, in North America. He knows everybody who’s anybody - one of his best friends is the Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, Kekäläinen’s former agent, and as assistant GM of the Senators, the man who hired him to Ottawa - and having patrolled the rinks of the world for years, he had paid his dues.
One of the advantages of his scouting career is that he’s now seen an en entire player generation from their draft year to their retirement.
“My first year, I was scouting players born in 1977,” he says.
That class includes players like the Bruins Zdeno Chara, and the Lightning’s Finnish defenceman Sami Salo, whom Ottawa drafted in the ninth round, as the third last player of the draft. The oldest player on the Blue Jackets right now, is Derek MacKenzie, born in 1981.
“I have watched most of the current players since they were drafted, except the 2011 and 2012 draft years, when I only followed players coming out of Finland. Players like Teuvo Teräväinen,” he says.
“Of course the players have matured as players and as people, but at least I have some knowledge of their fundamental character traits,” says Kekäläinen.
Signing players and putting a team together is only a small slice of a GM’s job description, he says. A GM is also the coach’s boss, and a sounding board, and besides signing players, he builds the entire organization around them, from the trainers, to equipment managers, to scouts.
“That’s the part of being a manager that I enjoy. There are surprises in this job every day, things happen. I talk to people to see how things are, and how the team is moving along. Sometimes the coach needs someone to talk to. I won’t interfere with the coach’s job, but I’ll give him my opinion”, he says.
Last year, when Kekäläinen took over as the GM, the Blue Jackets had won just five of their 19 games. Most people expected him to step in, fire the coach, trade some players, and start building a new team for next season. Instead, Kekäläinen stepped in, and said he wanted to get to know people.
“I didn’t know much about Todd Richards when I got here, but when I did learn to know him, I found him to be hardworking and organized, a good coach. I think his reputation made a 180-degree turn last season,” Kekäläinen says.
The Blue Jackets responded, goaltender Sergei Bobrovski got hot, and the team won 19 of their last 29 games, and were left without a point just five times the rest of the season. They were tied in points with Minnesota Wild, and ended up missing the playoffs because they had two fewer wins.
“That’s the beauty of a team sport. I can’t explain it, and I don’t think anybody can. How could the Bruins sweep the Penguins in the playoffs? How could Ässät Pori, last in the standing in January, win the Finnish championship in April?
“When the players believe in each other, and work together, that’s what makes this so great. The power of a team working together is beautiful. Somebody who runs a 2:15 marathon can’t beat a 2:06 runner, but a team of good players can do wonders,” says Kekäläinen – who ran a 2:58 marathon in Boston a few years ago.
One European GM can't tear down all the walls, and Kekäläinen doesn’t want to be a flag-bearer for all European hockey people everywhere.
Then again, Kekäläinen naturally draws from the talent pool he knows, and many of his hires are people he’s known for a long time. Bill Zito was Kekäläinen’s partner in the agent business, and now an assistant GM at the Blue Jackets. Ville Sirén, a Kekäläinen hire in St. Louis in 2003, left the Blues to become the Blue Jackets director of scouting. Basil McRae, a former Blues scout had a three-week stint as Jokerit assistant coach and is now scouting for the Blue Jackets. Another new scout, Bob Halkidis, played on the 1998 HIFK team that won the Finnish championship.
“I’m proud to be the first European GM, and I hope it’ll open doors to other great people out there, but it won’t help me in my work. The best way for me to have a long career here is to build a winning team, and once we have a team that’s continually challenging for a championship, then maybe I have enough influence to help others, but right now, I’ll just focus on the Blue Jackets,” says Kekäläinen, who was named Assistant GM of the Finnish national team at the Olympics on Monday.
“Being involved in the Olympics is anyone’s dream in ice hockey. I didn’t have to think much about my answer when Erkka [Westerlund] called me,” Kekäläinen says.
But for now Kekäläinen’s focus in on the Blue Jackets. Getting close last year has made Columbus fans hungry for more. Right now, Kekäläinen says, Columbus is a great sports town, but he’d like to make it a hockey town.
“There’s a lot of potential, but the popularity of the Buckeyes in college football and basketball is gigantic. The way to get people interested in hockey is the same here as anywhere else. You have to win,” he says.
“There are no shortcuts,” he adds.
And even if there were, he probably wouldn’t take it. It wouldn’t be as much fun.