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Catching up with Rusty Klesla

The first player drafted by the CBJ talks about his connection to Columbus

by Alison Lukan @AlisonL /

Rostislav "Rusty" Klesla was the first player drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The defenseman was selected fourth overall in 2000 and spent 10 years with the organization. Along the way he attached his name to many franchise firsts, including: road goal scored (Oct. 12, 2000 at Calgary); goal by a defenseman at Nationwide Arena (Oct. 25, 2000 vs. San Jose); and the first shot on goal in the Jackets' inaugural playoff game (Apr. 16, 2009 at Detroit).

Klesla ranks fifth on the club's all-time games played list at 515, which is second only to Fedor Tyutin (553) among defensemen. He is also the club's all-time leader in goals by a defensemen (41) and stands second in points (133).

He played his final season with Columbus in 2010-11 before spending four seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes. He returned to his native Czech Republic in 2014 and resides there with his wife, Krystina, and son, Rostislav (5).

We caught up with the "original Jacket" to reflect on his days in union blue.

What was it like to be the Blue Jackets first ever draft-selected player?

That year there were two expansion teams and I was waiting and wondering who was going to pick me, knowing that finally, my dream (of playing in the NHL) was going to come true. The fourth pick was Columbus' and they picked me. I remember John McConnell coming on the stage and all the scouting staff and Doug MacLean being there too. It was big day and I was relieved because I didn't have to spend all day worrying if someone would choose me.

What was it like to be a part of bringing professional hockey to Columbus?

It was exciting to help build a hockey team and a hockey town. Everything was new for everybody. I really liked the people there, the city and all the things around it.

It was interesting because everybody tried to be their best, everybody tried to be good right from the start. It's not that easy, obviously. It takes a lot of certain small things to become a good or even great franchise, and I think right now that is happening for Columbus.

Do you follow the Blue Jackets today?

I do watch highlights. I'm in a different time zone so I don't get to watch regular season games, but I'm definitely going to see some games real time in the playoffs. I still follow the team. The players are younger and different from when I was there, but there's still people I know on the staff and in the organization. I was there for 10 years and the team and the people are always going to be a part (of my life).

I'm really happy right now that the city, which has great fans, gets to have a team that is really good and has a lot of respect in the NHL. My favorite times in Columbus were when we were winning and you could feel the city was excited and behind you. That's what it is right now, and it's really great. I followed the winning streak and it was really nice to see.

When you joined Columbus, you wore sweater #44, but then later switched to #97. What made you make the change?

The team gave me 44 from the get go, just like they assign numbers for most new players. I would have chosen a different number at the time, like number 7 or number 4, but they gave me 44. I didn't want to be the rookie asking to change their number at a young age. Later (during the 2005-06 season) I decided 97 was a number I always liked when I was young and I wanted to bring some better luck to the team and my game so I changed. I felt good, I felt better and knew I was wearing a number that I chose.

One of the many things you were known for was ending interviews you did with the Jackets' game day show host, Jim Day with "thank you, Jim Day." Was that intentional?

I liked Jim as a guy and I thought thanking Jim Day was the right thing to do. Then I noticed people liked it and started talking about it, so whenever I was interviewed by him I made sure I said it. Even when we were down or lost a game I thought that some small thing like that can make a fan laugh or remember the fun side of the hockey, so it should be done.

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