The National Hockey League’s first European general manager soon will board a plane from Finland to the United States with an open mind to embark on another dream.
A tired Jarmo Kekalainen joined Hockey Night in Canada Radio Wednesday afternoon, just hours after agreeing to a multi-year contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who fired Scott Howson a day earlier.
"It has been a dream for me [to be an NHL GM]. My real dream is to win the Stanley Cup," Kekalainen, 46, told HNIC Radio host Elliotte Friedman and co-host Kelly Hrudey. "Now, I’ve got my chance to start building something towards that again."
Kekalainen, known more to fans as an excellent player evaluator during his previous NHL stops in Ottawa and St. Louis, admittedly wasn’t skilled enough to taste the Cup as a player, lasting only 55 games as a left-winger in six seasons with Boston and Ottawa in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
He also spent time in the American Hockey League and his native Finland before finishing his career with Vasteras IK in the Swedish Elite League in the 1994-95 season.
Kekalainen joined the Senators later that year and remained for seven seasons in a variety of roles, including director of player personnel and overseeing the annual NHL entry draft and the club’s scouting efforts in Europe.
In 2002, the father of two daughters moved to St. Louis, where he was involved in all facets of hockey operations, most recently serving as assistant GM and director of amateur scouting. Kekalainen left the Blues in 2010 when Doug Armstrong beat him out for the GM’s job, returning to Finland to become president and GM of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League.
First on his to-do list in Columbus is to evaluate the people with whom he’ll be working closely, from players to coaches to the scouting staff. Kekalainen worked under Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson in St. Louis and alongside Paul Castron, one of Columbus’ directors of amateur scouting, during his Ottawa days.
"There’s a lot of work to do," Kekalainen told listeners on Sirius channel 207 and XM channel 92, "but I’m thrilled to get started and couldn’t be more excited."
While 35 games remain in this lockout-shortened season for the 4-7-2 Blue Jackets — who entered play Wednesday 13th in the Western Conference — many fans are probably already getting excited about how Kekalainen could perform on the draft floor in New Jersey on June 30.
'It’s a great opportunity for the franchise to have those three picks.'— Jarmo Kekalainen on the Blue Jackets' 3 first-round draft picks in 2013
Besides its own first-round selection, Columbus has first-rounders from the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings for what many consider to be a deep draft.
Kekalainen remained consistent in his message to be open-minded, saying the team will explore all its options when it comes to either keeping one or more of the draft picks or offering them up for trade.
"It’s a great opportunity for the franchise to have those three picks," said Kekalainen, adding serious contract talks with Columbus began in the last few days. He joins a Blue Jackets outfit that made the playoffs under Howson in 2009, but has fallen to the depths of the NHL since.
"There are different options with three picks, whether it’s using one pick to move up the draft [order]," he said. "It could be two picks and a player. It could be a variety of things.
"I’ve been in a situation with the St. Louis Blues when we had three [first-round] picks [in 2007]. We moved up, we moved back. I think those are decisions you make once you get to the table with your [draft] list and see who you really want and [where] you have to pick to get him."
As for a Wednesday night of celebration, a bleary-eyed Kekalainen planned a quiet evening of eating sushi with his wife Tiina before going to bed early.
"I’ve never had so many messages in my entire life from friends, people I know and have known through my hockey career," he said, "and I’m touched and honoured that they remembered me. I look forward to this challenge."
Below, Kekalainen answered a few more questions during his 10-minute interview on HNIC Radio:
What are qualities you look for in a player?
"I look for a player with character and heart and hockey sense and instincts. I think the easiest part of scouting is to see the speed and skating ability, the skill and technical stuff. While it’s important to recognize those things … it’s much harder to get to the bottom of a player as far as how he works, what his work habits are, what his character is like. Does he play with heart? Does he compete? Does he have the instincts to play fast and quick hockey that is required in the NHL today to have success as a team?
You have to do your due diligence and be thorough with your approach. I’ve worked with some of the best scouts in hockey. [Former Senators GM] Marshall Johnston is one of the guys that I consider a scout and the boss that I’ve learned so much from. I think his approach was very simple: work hard, watch the game and get to the bottom of the character, hockey sense and instincts.
What advanced stats are important in looking at players and teams?
I think it’s a great tool for support and I look for the facts from stats to see a pattern and confirm something that I’ve seen when I observe the players on the ice. It’s certainly not the main tool that I rely on. It’s hard to keep stats on those intangibles I just mentioned.
Is there a particular stat you believe in?
You win games and lose games by scoring goals and giving up goals, so I think at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how technical you want to get, it’s about goals scored against you and goals you score for your team. That’s the name of the game.