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Traveling man: Ruutu serves as Blue Jackets' eyes, ears overseas

Former NHL forward plays key part in developing team's European prospects

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

If he ever gets bored of his career in hockey, Jarkko Ruutu can become a travel agent. 

Hockey scouts have to become experts in how to travel quickly and efficiently, and Ruutu is no exception. Frequent flyer miles are his friend as the Blue Jackets' European development coach traverses his way across Europe and Russia to keep tabs on the Columbus prospects who are playing overseas. 

An ocean away from general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, Ruutu is the man who is the face of the Blue Jackets during the season to the team's prospects in Europe. That has increasingly made him a central piece in the organizational puzzle, as the Blue Jackets drafts in recent years have been filled with prospects from the European junior ranks.  

For example, this past season, Ruutu was a constant presence in rinks in Finland and Russia to watch the burgeoning success of such players as Alexandre Texier and Vladislav Gavrikov, who each made his way to Columbus by the end of the season and took part in postseason games for the Blue Jackets. 

Ruutu has also kept tabs on such players as forward Emil Bemstrom and goalie Elvis Merzlikins as they played in Sweden and Switzerland last year, respectively. Merzlikins has signed with the Blue Jackets and is expected to join Texier and Gavrikov in Columbus this upcoming season, while Bemstrom could also be a key piece of the puzzle after leading the Swedish league in scoring.  

This upcoming season, Ruutu can expect to see Russian goaltender Daniil Tarasov playing in Ruutu's native Finland, 2018 draft pick Markus Karlberg in Sweden, 2018 draft pick Tim Berni in Switzerland, and forward prospects Kirill Marchenko and Dmitri Voronkov (a 2019 draft pick) in Russia.  

It's a unique job, as Ruutu is part coach, part CBJ emissary, part sounding board, and part cheerleader. 

"I am talking to the guys all the time, what is going on with them, but at the same time I'm here to help them," Ruutu said. "I'm trying to obviously work for the (Blue Jackets) organization, but my perspective, I'm trying to help the guys to get to the level that they can succeed. Sometimes it's the little details in the game. A big part of it is the mental part of it, how they deal with different situations when things are going good and when things are not going so good. 

"It's very hard to describe because every player is different, and they can be in two different places throughout the year. That's why you have to see them quite a bit." 

Around the World 

That's why Ruutu is a frequent flyer -- or train traveler, depending on where he's going -- as he treks across Europe to see each of the CBJ prospects under his watch throughout the year. He was largely a one-man band this past season -- though the Jackets also employed European strength and conditioning coach Daniel Tjarnqvist -- but will be joined by new European goaltending coach Niklas Backstrom in 2019-20. 

"What can I tell them, stop the puck?" the former winger joked of his inability to help goalies on the ice. "Whatever I tell you, don't listen." 

But last year, Ruutu was the familiar face overseas as Blue Jackets prospects went about their seasons. Some are easier to get to than others -- prospects in Sweden, Finland and St. Petersburg are all relatively short trips from his home base in Helsinki -- but no matter the player, Ruutu makes it a priority to be a big part of his development.  

"He watched probably half of my games," Bemstrom said. "We chat after every game and he told what I'm doing good and what I'm doing bad. That's really good (to have). I have my dad, too. He was a professional hockey player in Sweden also, so I had two guys to talk hockey with. I think that's helped me a lot." 

"Every time, he just helped me after every game that he was at the game," Texier said. "I learned a lot. We (watched) a lot of video about my game. He was there most of the games in Finland." 

From there, Ruutu is able to use his experience to be a key piece of the development team for the Blue Jackets. He was able to go from Finland to an 11-year NHL career, playing from 2000-11 with four franchises, but more than that he was able to traverse his own unique development path to get there. 

After starting his career with HIFK in his native Finland, playing for the organization's Under-20 and U-18 teams, Ruutu spent the 1995-96 season playing college hockey at Michigan Tech. He then returned to Europe for three seasons, serving as captain of HIFK his final season, before returning to North America. 

Ruutu then spent most of that 1999-2000 campaign in the AHL but did make his NHL debut that season with Vancouver by playing in eight games. He spent most of the next season in the old IHL as well but was a full-time NHLer starting in 2001-02, playing in 652 career games with the Canucks, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Anaheim. Ruutu then returned to Finland for three seasons with a Jokerit team that was run by Kekalainen for part of his time there. 

In other words, Ruutu has pretty much seen it all in the hockey world as a player, and he's able to use his time with Blue Jackets prospects to around the world to help them reach their goals.  

"I try to explain if I'm going to a game, I'll tell them what I thought about the game and the different situations and the things they did well, and if they make a mistake where they can improve and think about (how to do so)," said Ruutu, who joined the organization in 2015. 

"It's a role that you want to support the players that they feel that they are wanted, they are involved, and they are actually close to making it to the NHL. They're not that far. Especially in Europe, it feels like it's far away, but they're not that far away." 

Challenges Abound 

In addition to the travel, there are other factors that make Ruutu's job difficult. In fact, ask him about his job and it's clear no day is the same, as his responsibilities are more than that of the average coach. 

For example, there's the fact that he's not an employee of the professional team each player is suiting up for, which can make things awkward when he's dealing with a coach of those club teams.  

"I'll try to talk to coaches, and I always want to make sure that we're talking the same language," Ruutu said. "I always tell the coaches that I'm here for the player, but I'm not a threat to you. If you're telling him something, I'm not going to go against you. I don't want to mess up a player and screw his head up. A lot of it is more -- I feel it's important that people feel like you care. I believe in discussions and communication because that's how you build relationships." 

With the Blue Jackets minor leaguers that are playing in the AHL with Cleveland, the coaching and leadership staff is put in place by the Blue Jackets organization, making it more seamless development process once players get to that level. 

But in Europe, the prospects -- many of whom are from varied cultures, as some are playing in their home countries while others are making a big step up in competition as they head to bigger leagues -- have different backgrounds and different age levels, meaning there's no one-size-fits-all approach. 

The general message is one of improvement, or simply getting better from one game to the next. 

"Obviously he watches the game and we talk about the last time he was here," said Berni, a young defenseman who spent last year in his native Switzerland and played in the World Juniors last year. "If he tells me something to improve on, we would talk about it next time he was here. That's the main goal, to improve every game he's watching me. He's helped me a lot." 

Those words would likely be music to Ruutu's ears. After getting the chance to live out his NHL dream, he has the chance to help make that come true for young athletes across the Blue Jackets organization.  

"I think the best part is when I see them come (to Columbus) and have success," Ruutu said. "They're doing all the work, but if I can help a little bit on the way just to somehow help them get here -- I got to live my dream, and now if I can help younger guys get to realize their dream, that's important to me because I know how big it is for them. 

"It's a slow process. It doesn't happen overnight. Very few guys come in to play right away in the draft. Most of the guys, it takes time. There's a learning curve and it's different for every player." 

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