Jarmo Kekalainen paid a price on the way to becoming the first European general manager in the National Hockey League.
Those are the words of his former boss in St. Louis, Larry Pleau, who hired the Finnish-born Kekalainen in 2002 for a job in amateur scouting after he helped the Ottawa Senators draft Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat, among others.
“He was young, eager, energetic and wanted to better himself,” Pleau, the former Blues GM, said of Kekalainen in a phone interview from Montreal following a scouting mission to Finland and Sweden. “I didn’t know him personally, just knew about him from working in the field.”
Now 46, Kekalainen spent eight seasons in St. Louis involved in all facets of hockey operations, most recently as assistant GM and director of amateur scouting.
“He’s worked for this for quite a while,” said Pleau. “He’s somebody that’s really put some time in and [he's] getting an outstanding opportunity.”
On Wednesday, Kekalainen was named the fourth GM in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 12-plus year history, taking over from the fired Scott Howson. He’ll be reunited with John Davidson, who was the Blues' president for much of Kekalainen’s time in St. Louis and is now the president of hockey operations in Columbus.
When Pleau talked about Kekalainen paying the price, the road to becoming an NHL GM began with Kekalainen attending Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., in 1987. The left-winger played two seasons with the Golden Knights, earning Eastern College Athletic Conference First All-Star honours in 1989 after recording 44 points in 31 games.
He left Clarkson with a bachelor’s degree in management and went to play for the Boston Bruins. Kekalainen would suit up for 55 NHL games for Boston and Ottawa, and later played in the American Hockey League and Finland before joining the Senators as director of player personnel along with overseeing the NHL draft and the club’s scouting efforts in Europe.
Kekalainen was in his third season as president and GM of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League when Davidson sought change in Columbus. The Blue Jackets, who were 4-7-2 on the season when Davidson announced Kekalainen’s hiring, have competed in the Stanley Cup playoffs just once and not since 2009.
'I had one hundred per cent trust in Jarmo, his scouting staff and their approach.'— Former Blues GM Larry Pleau
“He did go back to Finland and he’s done really well there getting [Jokerit] back on track,” Pleau said. “Sometimes you reach a certain stage and you know it’s time, that you’re ready [to become an NHL GM]. He’s well organized, well prepared.”
To fans in North America, Kekalainen is known more for being an excellent player evaluator from his previous NHL stops in Ottawa and St. Louis, where he was largely responsible for the Blues' drafting David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Patrick Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo as well as trading for Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Scott Mellanby.
“I had one hundred per cent trust in Jarmo, his scouting staff and their approach,” said Pleau, now a senior adviser for amateur scouting with the Blues. “I always gave him the structure of our depth chart and our future needs. He had complete control of the amateur draft using the philosophies we had in St. Louis and how we were going to structure our team.”
Pleau said Kekalainen’s experience makes him an elite talent evaluator, adding Kekalainen possesses the work ethic and drive to be successful while using the tools available to him, including psychological testing, his support staff and personal interviews with prospective NHL draft picks.
“He’s got a pretty broad profile,” said Pleau, “working with people, handling people, running meetings, disciplining people, communicating with them. He’s a very good hockey guy and has a good sense of humour, too.
“[It shows] at meetings, when he deals with people. The ability to get the job done is number one. There’s also the ability to get people to relax and do the job the proper way, and he has that.”
But how quickly can he rebuild in Columbus and get the Blue Jackets in the direction of being an annual playoff contender?
First on Kekalainen’s to-do list is an evaluation of the people with whom he’ll be working closely, from players to coaches to the scouting staff.
“Over time,” said a confident Pleau, “I think you’ll see a huge effect [with Kekalainen’s presence in Columbus]. In today’s hockey world it’s hard to say you’re just going to [build a team through] the draft because your players reach those free agent ages so quick. You almost have to use all avenues, which is your draft, trades and the signing of free agents.
“He’ll take his time, gather his information and make a decision based on things he feels and what he’s evaluated. I don’t think there will be any snap decisions.”
So, the Blue Jackets might have to pay the price for the actions of the previous regime for a chance at long-term success.