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The Columbus Blue Jackets last month hired Jarmo Kekalainen as their new GM, making him the first European to manage a National Hockey League team. (Credit: Kimmo Mantyla/Getty Images)

No Surprise

Columbus, meet new Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen

By Chris Gaitten

Published March 1, 2013

On February 13th, one day after letting go of GM Scott Howson, the Blue Jackets President of Hockey Operations John Davidson stood at the podium and announced the hiring of new GM Jarmo Kekalainen, a serious man with a funny-looking name, at least for Americans. The search was short, and his name was probably the only one ever really in the running.

He and Davidson worked together for several years with the St. Louis Blues, where they turned around the team and became like-minded friends, despite the fact that Davidson selected Doug Armstrong to be the Blues’ GM instead of Kekalainen.

After his most recent stint in his native Finland, he has now rejuvenated two Finnish teams as GM and played a central role scouting, drafting, and developing personnel for the Blues and Ottawa Senators, possessing a finely tuned eye for talent. (614) caught up with the brand new GM – the first European to helm an NHL front office – in between trips to the consulate in Helsinki to get his immigration papers in order so he could join the team stateside. In conversation, he comes across as earnest, a quality he attributes to most Fins, and he has a no-nonsense message for Columbus: bring him some Finnish mustard.

You and John Davidson have a history together while you were with the Blues. What about your philosophies meshes well together?

We talk about hockey a lot. We’ve talked about it over the years, and he knows what my philosophy is. I think the same way about a lot of things, not just hockey. I think it’s a great starting point. I know what to expect from him. I think he knows what to expect from me, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to start and get to work.

Much has been made of the fact you’re the first European GM in NHL history. Does that mean anything special to you?

Well, I think it’s nice to be mentioned like that … but I’d like to push it in the background and kinda leave it there … It’s not about my nationality, it’s about ability.

So what can the city expect from a Jarmo team? Do your teams tend to have a certain personality or mentality to them?

We’re not gonna be outworked, and we’re gonna be about character, and we’re gonna be about heart and effort, but I also believe in playin’ real fast, quick hockey, and I’m not talking about skating. I’m talking about thinking, anticipation, instinct, hockey-sense, all that stuff. I think those are the key areas that we’re gonna try to focus on when we try to find players for the organization, whether it’s in free agency or trades or draft. We wanna play competitive, entertaining, fast hockey, and winning hockey. Obviously, that’s the main thing.

What do you do to go about building a winning team here where we haven’t necessarily had the most success in the past?

I think we wanna build a strong core of leaders that lead by example, that build a culture, a winning culture in Columbus and with the Blue Jackets. You know, when a good group of core guys show that example every day, and whenever there’s a new guy coming from outside of the organization, whether through trade or free agency or draft, they will notice right away that, “Holy smokes, these guys work hard. These guys mean business.”

You mentioned the draft. You’re known as a really good scout and kind of a draft guru. The Blue Jackets have three first round picks in this year’s draft, which is supposed to be pretty heavy on talent. Are there any prospects out there who really excite you?

The thing that I preach about is character, and that’s not always easy to see when you’re analyzing the guys that are gonna be good for the draft. There’s always some guys that find a way to get better. You know, the rate of their development gets accelerated after the draft much more than the guys that don’t have the character traits that those guys have. So I think that if it’s a good draft or bad draft, I think you still gotta do the work and put the players in the right order. And that’s the key to success, and I don’t think there are any gurus or super scouts or anything. I think it’s hard work and due diligence and details, and then the right order at the end, and a little bit of luck, too.

You’re coming back into the league at a time when it might be struggling just a little bit in the wake of the most recent lockout to have the fans embrace it again. What do you think the NHL can do to try to win them back?

I think we’ve got a long-term solution now; we’re here to stay and play. And I think if they lost some of that respect for us, we just have to earn it back, and I think gaining the respect of somebody, whether it’s the audience or fans or friends, it’s always a step-by-step process, and you gotta be patient, and you gotta be honest, and that’s all we can do.

I don’t think most people in Columbus are gonna be particularly knowledgeable about Finnish food and culture. Which Finnish food will you miss most over here?

(laughs) Great meatballs and mashed potatoes that my grandma used to make were always my favorite food growing up. My family owns a little bakery in my hometown, and I’ll miss those, and I’ll miss the black licorice. And the one thing that I never let anyone visit without is Finnish mustard. If you wanna come to visit me from Finland, you better bring some mustard.

What’s different about Finnish mustard?

There’s a certain degree of sweetness in it, a little bit like Dijon, but it’s different. A lot of guys that share the same passion with mustard as I do have really liked the Finnish mustard. So it’s a little bit of sweetness and little bit of bite to it.

Sounds good. I’m actually a huge fan of mustard myself so I’ll have to try to find some somewhere.

And Finnish chocolate is the best-kept secret. Everybody talks about Belgium or Swiss chocolate, but Finnish chocolate is fantastic.

I also hear you’re an avid marathoner, and you’ve put up some pretty good times. Will Columbus marathoners get a chance to test themselves against you?

Absolutely. I’ve looked into it before, and I’ll look into it again, but I think that I have some things on my plate first that might prevent me from real serious training in the near future. But I will be still running, and I will be getting on the good trails in Columbus, and I’m gonna get that marathon done one of these days, too.

What is one thing about you that fans might be surprised to learn?

Surprised? I’m not a real big surprise guy. Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m predictable either, but I’m not big into surprises. I dunno, I guess Fins are sometimes quiet people. People think that we’re very quiet and reserved, but they’re not. It’s just that we’re a little serious sometimes, and that’s the one thing that I remind myself in America, that the small talk there is a lot bigger part of the culture than here in Finland.

Who is the most exciting player in the NHL for you right now? Just purely from the perspective of sitting down on your couch and enjoying him play.

(laughs) I’m gonna try to be real careful here with that, with all the tampering rules and all that. There are a lot of exciting players. We have some exciting players on our team. The NHL is the best league in the world, and it’s always fun to watch. I’ve been [in Finland] for two-and-a-half years; I watch every game that’s on TV here at a decent hour. My old team, St. Louis, I kept watching their games all that time before I got hired by Columbus, and if they were on the West Coast, I’d get up at five and watch their games, just like I did this morning to watch the Blue Jackets.

A few years ago when you were in St. Louis, John Davidson chose Doug Armstrong as GM, and then you went off to Finland. Are you particularly excited to get back and play against the Blues?

(laughs) I always try to kinda remind myself that there’s two points for every win, and 29 opponents in the NHL, and to not try to get too emotional about anybody. Obviously, it would be nice to visit St. Louis and see some old friends and all that, but I’ve cut the cord and moved on, and I’m a proud Blue Jacket now.

The Blue Jackets will enjoy a healthy dose of home games this month, beginning March 3 against Colorado and ending March 31 against Anaheim. The draft will be held June 28-29. For more, visit www.bluejackets.nhl.com.