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UNFINNISHED BUSINESS: A story of the NHL's only Euro GM and his Cup quest

Jarmo Kekalainen remains undeterred in his pursuit of two things in Columbus ... a championship and a good sauna.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The sounds of a gameday afternoon are audible over his shoulder, as Jarmo Kekalainen sits at a large, wooden table in his office.

It's two hours before puck-drop at Nationwide Arena, during the Blue Jackets' final push to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and their general manager has just been asked about his favorite part of the job.

A flat screen at the far end of the table is tuned to NHL Network, with the sound muted. A deep, thumping bass rattles the walls. The smell of popcorn fills a nearby hallway.

"I just like coming to the game, like today … a game day," said Kekalainen, who's from Tampere, Finland and is still the NHL's first-and-only European-born GM. "Just getting ready for a game, it's exciting. Today's going to be sold out, full of people and hopefully a great atmosphere. If we can come up with a win, great."

If not, the sting will feel the same as his playing days.

"That's what I enjoy the most," he said. "It's the emotional attachment to the team, the ups and the downs … just hockey games in general. Hockey has been a big part of my life and I love playing and competing. I can't do that anymore as a player, so this is the closest thing to it that I can do."

His tone is matter-of-fact. His voice low and measured. His sincerity is genuine.

Kekalainen, who signed a multi-year contract extension in September, has his dream job. Entering his sixth season in that role, his fingerprints are all over the Blue Jackets' success.

They've qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three of his first five years, including the past two - when the eventual Stanley Cup champions eliminated them. They're ready for their own Cup run now, led by an unwavering GM with a stringent draft-and-develop philosophy, but now he's facing two of the toughest decisions he might ever need to make.

Artemi Panarin, the star left wing Kekalainen acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in a blockbuster 2017 trade, is entering the final year of his contract. He doesn't have a new contract in place, has rebuffed management's efforts to negotiate one and might just wait for the start of free agency next summer (July 1, 2019).

It's a similar plot with star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who's also on the last year of his current deal.

This, of course, is a conundrum for the guy in the GM's chair.

Should he trade one, or both, to avoid the fate of the empty-handed New York Islanders this past summer in the John Tavares sweepstakes? Should he hang onto both and go for broke, hoping they'll eventually come around?

Trade one, hang onto the other?

These are questions no GM wants rattling around his head with any star player, let alone two, but if anybody in the NHL is hard-wired to handle it, it's Kekalainen. He's taking a patient approach, which should surprise nobody, and there are eyes across the league now fixated on Columbus - wondering what he'll ultimately do.

If he sticks to what he said in March, in his office, the answer will be the result of a measured process.

"I don't think I have any more patience than anybody else, but I try to approach every decision with, 'OK, take away the emotions, take away the anxiety, pressure or whatever you want to call it … and just analyze it,'" Kekalainen said, about a month before news broke that Panarin wasn't ready to negotiate. "Analyze what's the best course of action and that's how you develop patience, because you have to make sure you make the right decision. Sometimes you've got to do it quick. Sometimes, you need a little more time. I'd like to be known as analytical and smart, rather than just patient."

He is all of those things - analytical, smart and patient - but there's a lot more to the Jackets' GM than the cool, calculating appearance he projects.

***

THE BEGINNING

As with many in the hockey world, there's a good story behind Kekalainen's path to the front office.

It stretches back to his playing days, which included two years at Clarkson University, parts of three seasons in the NHL (Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators) and stints in both the American Hockey League and European leagues.

Injuries cut short his career in 1995, but Kekalainen wasn't done with hockey. He made a phone call to friend Ray Shero, his former agent and then assistant general manager of the Senators.

"Randy Sexton was the general manager in Ottawa," recalled Shero, now GM of the New Jersey Devils. "Back then, we didn't have any money in Ottawa, but Jarmo wanted to stay in hockey and get involved in scouting."

Shero ran the idea by Sexton, but it didn't look good.

"Randy says, 'Ray, Jarmo seems like a great guy, but we have no money left,'" Shero said. "So, I called Jarmo and I said, 'Listen, Jarmo, we can hire you as a part-time scout, a European scout. I said, 'Jarmo, we've got no money.' He says, 'It doesn't matter. It's hard to get in. I'll do it.'"

Shero can't help but chuckle about it now.

"What we paid him was $3,000."

Kekalainen also became GM of IFK Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League (SM-Liiga) in 1995, but his first NHL scouting gig paid practically nothing. It was a steal for the Senators.

"That was Canadian [dollars] too," Shero said. "Three-thousand … a year! Three-thousand bucks, European scout. Canadian … so, we hire him."

The story also has an additional twist. 

"I get a call like three days later," Shero said. "It's Jarmo. He says, 'I've got to ask you a question about the $3,000,' and I'm like, 'Jarmo, seriously, we don't have any more money.' He was like, 'No, I just have to ask you a question. I've got a really good friend of mine who wants to get into scouting too and I just want to know … is it OK if he comes with me to some games and I give him half of the $3,000?'"

Shero nearly dropped the phone.

"I was like, 'What?'" he said. "So, I'm like, 'You know this guy pretty well?' and he says, 'Yeah, he's one of my best friends. I think he'd really be good.'"

Shero couldn't believe it.

"I go, 'OK, and then, you're going to split the $3,000 … so $1,500 apiece right?'" he said. "He goes, 'Yeah.' So, I'm like, 'OK, listen, two for the price of one. Sign me up, man. By the way, who is this Finnish friend of yours?'"

The answer should be familiar to the Blue Jackets, because he's now their head amateur scout.

"Ville Siren," Shero said of the former NHL player turned super scout. "True story. We got those guys in the business for $3,000 between the two of them."

***

THE EXECUTIVE

Kekalainen used to be an agent, which was the same path Shero took to the management side and also how Bill Zito, Blue Jackets associate GM, joined the Columbus front office.

His first management job was GM of IFK Helsinki, a tradition-steeped franchise in the Finnish league. He constructed a championship team in 1998, using several of Zito's clients, and a number of those players later made it to the NHL.

The No.1 goalie was Tim Thomas, for instance, who backstopped the Boston Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup. Brian Rafalski (Red Wings) and Kimmo Timonen (Predators, Flyers, Blackhawks) were defensemen. Olli Jokinen (10 NHL teams) was a center.

"It didn't take him long," Zito said of Kekalainen. "He had a good eye for talent. He's the guy who really gave Tim Thomas his big break. Then Brian Rafalski was another one of our guys, and Jarmo said, 'I want to get him to IFK.' Then he got Kimmo Timonen from another team in Finland. He had an unbelievable team at IFK. It's unbelievable how much talent they had."

Jarkko Ruutu was also a forward on that roster, prior to his NHL career. He's now the Blue Jackets' European development coach, cultivating players such as Jonathan Davidsson and Alexandre Texier.

Kekalainen headed back to the NHL, too, spinning his part-time scouting role with the Senators into becoming their director of player personnel in 1999. He contributed to Ottawa drafting star forwards Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat, among other NHL players, and then joined the St. Louis Blues in 2002 as assistant GM and director of amateur scouting.

In St. Louis, he drafted defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, forward T.J. Oshie, center David Backes, forward David Perron and others, before being passed over for the Blues' GM job. He went back to Finland to run the front office for Jokerit, another storied program, and that's where he was when the Blue Jackets called in 2013.

John Davidson, Blue Jackets director of hockey operations, offered Kekalainen his dream job - and that's how he became the NHL's first European-born GM.

"If I can help anybody else get to that position, just because I broke the barrier, great, then I'm happy," he said. "But if I'm the first European general manager to win the Stanley Cup, then that really means something."

That remains his goal in Columbus, regardless of what happens with Bobrovsky and Panarin. The Blue Jackets have undergone a culture shift in Kekalainen's tenure, so they expect to win now, every season, and they're not afraid to talk about winning the whole darn thing.

The GM's belief in what he's building is the reason. 

"If he sees something in a player, he'll see it through to fruition," Zito said. "He'll see it to the end, without reacting emotionally and getting rid of somebody or giving up on somebody because the timeline of their development doesn't suit his needs. That takes remarkable patience. It takes remarkable temerity to stand in there and do it. It's a wonderful combination of traits."

***

THE PERSONALITY

Judging by appearance, it might seem like Kekalainen is all business, all the time.

While there's some truth to it, there is also a side of him that makes close friends chuckle about his shaved-head and constant game face.

"He's one of my best friends," Shero said. "Other people see this serious look, but we see something different. He's funny as hell."

Care for an example? Shero's got plenty.

"Finns and Swedes, big rivalry, right?" he said. "In Finland, there's mandatory service in the army, no matter who you are, and the Swedes … not so much. So, the Finns like to call them a bunch of chickens who've never been to war. Anyway, I see Jarmo once and he's like, 'Hey, do you know what the shortest book in history is?' And I'm like, 'No, what is it?' He goes, 'Swedish War Heroes.' I go, 'Oh … that's good.'"

Shero also likes messing with his friend, just to get under his skin.

"One of the games we played in Columbus [last season], after the first or second period I was talking to those guys [Kekalainen and Zito] and Jarmo goes, 'Listen, you've got to see this video,'" Shero said. "So, he shows me this video. It's some Finnish comedian that was on Conan O'Brien's show. This guy was really funny. So, after the game, we're on the bus to the airport and Jarmo texts me. I was like, 'Good win for you guys. By the way, that's got to be the only funny Finnish guy I know. No wonder it's big news."

He knew exactly what to expect in return.

"He texts me back like, 'What? There's a lot of funny Finnish guys. Kimmo's funny, Jarko Ruutu's funny. They're all funnier than me, I guess … is what you're saying? I go, 'Yeah.'"

Even after a tough night for his Devils, Shero had a laugh.

"I've had a lot of fun times with Jarmo, well outside the NHL, I'll tell you that," he said. "He's a fun person. All those guys he mentioned - Billy [Zito], Kimmo Timonen, Jarkko Ruutu - they know him too. They know he's not this stoic, hard-to-read guy he shows. That's why I gave him a hard time in that text. He was like, 'You don't think I'm funny?' and I was like, 'Well, I think you're kind of funny, but no one else does.'"

***

THE TRADES

When it comes to wheeling and dealing, Kekalainen has been involved in some doozies. He's not, however, interested in providing a self-assessment.

"I'll let somebody else analyze it," he said.

As it turns out, that's a lot to analyze. Here are some of his most notable trades:

April 3, 2013 - Kekalainen pulls off his first blockbuster, acquiring star forward Marian Gaborik in a package from the New York Rangers, sending center Derick Brassard to New York along with forward Derek Dorsett, defenseman John Moore and a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft.

Mar. 5, 2014 - Gaborik is dealt to the Los Angeles Kings at the NHL Trade Deadline in exchange for defenseman Matt Frattin, a second-round pick in 2014 and a conditional third-round pick.

June 23, 2014 - Kekalainen trades forward R.J. Umberger to the Flyers, along with a fourth-round pick in 2015, for forward Scott Hartnell.

Feb. 26, 2015 - The Blue Jackets acquire forward David Clarkson from the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Nathan Horton.

Mar. 2, 2015 - Defenseman James Wisniewski is traded to the Anaheim Ducks in a package that brought Rene Bourque and William Karlsson to Columbus.

June 30, 2015 - Another blockbuster, acquiring forward Brandon Saad from the Blackhawks just weeks after Saad helped Chicago win the 2015 Stanley Cup at age 22. Columbus included center Artem Anisimov and former first-round pick, Marko Dano.

Jan. 6, 2016 - Yet another blockbuster deal (sensing a trend?) brought star defenseman Seth Jones to the Blue Jackets in exchange for former top center Ryan Johansen.

June 21, 2017 - Kekalainen struck a deal with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who agreed to take Karlsson in the NHL Expansion Draft in exchange for two high draft picks (2017 first-round, 2019 second) plus Clarkson.

June 23, 2017 - Surprise, surprise … another blockbuster, this time to acquire a package from the Blackhawks headlined by Panarin, with Saad going back in the package deal sent to Chicago.

Feb. 25-26, 2018 - Needing a boost at the deadline, Kekalainen pulled off deals to acquire three veterans: center Mark Letestu, forward Thomas Vanek and defenseman Ian Cole. The most valuable assets given up were forward Tyler Motte and two draft picks, a third-round pick in 2020 and fourth-round pick in 2018.

If there's any common thread with these trades, it's that Kekalainen isn't afraid to pull the trigger. Some have worked out wonderfully (Jones, Panarin and Hartnell), while others have flopped (Gaborik, Clarkson and the Vegas expansion deal). 

"The sooner you make a mistake and just admit it and move on - and you either trade that guy or make a decision on something - the better off you are," Shero said. "From Jarmo's standpoint, he's set up well. A lot of the deals he's made have worked out well for both teams, and that's what you hope for. You're constantly evaluating your roster, your contract situation or your cap situation down the road, looking at the moves you've made. Jarmo's confident in himself and the decisions he's made."

He's also prepared, with last season's deadline deals a perfect example.

"I think Tyler Motte's a good player and those picks can be worth something, so there was some value given up, but it was a calculated expenditure," Zito said. "There's a plan in place for some time. You didn't just show up the morning of the trade deadline at 10 o'clock and say, 'Well, I think I'll do this.' No. There's a plan and there's a process in place. There's a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C and a what-if, and you've organized all that well in advance and had multiple arguments and discussions, revisiting things and looking at things from different angles. There's a lot of 'what-ifs.'"

There's no waffling, though, because that's just not in Kekalainen's bloodstream. He makes decisions. He lives with the results. Period.

"When he gets tempted to part with, or deviate from, the plan … nope," Zito said. "Ain't gonna happen. He has a plan and it works."

Except when it comes to selling vehicles.

The only deal he and Shero have pulled off involves a Cadillac Escalade still owned by Shero. It was originally purchased for Kekalainen's wife, Tiina, but Kekalainen sold it to Shero after he accepted the Jokerit GM position.

Shipping an SUV back to Finland would've been a hassle, so he gave Shero a call.

"I bought Tiina's car, and to this day he still says I beat him on the deal," Shero said, laughing. "It was kind of funny. I think that was our last deal.''

It was indicative of Kekalainen's trading M.O.

"He's a fair guy that way," Davidson said. "When you deal as a general manager in this league, you're dealing with different personalities that are all over the place. The one thing I'll say about Jarmo is he's a very honest person. I admire the honesty he has and the way he goes about his business. That reflects on the organization."

***

THE GM AND THE COACH

Prior to the process that led to him coaching the Blue Jackets, John Tortorella had never met his general manager.

There was no history there, no "friend of a friend" type of stuff to build upon. That, as it's turned out, was actually a good thing. They've forged their own working relationship along the way and have become friends too.

"It's a relationship that I think has developed to where we just talk," Tortorella said. "Sometimes, we may have a difference of opinion, but we talk it out."

Hockey isn't all they talk about, though.

"The thing that draws me to him is that we can talk about our families or we can talk about dogs," Tortorella said. "Him and I have more conversations about dogs sometimes than hockey on certain days."

And when the subject is hockey, there's give and take there too.

"It's not always in agreement, but whenever we're in disagreement and we get at it, hard, it's never personal," Tortorella said. "We both have an ability to be mad at that situation, and in those conversations, but it doesn't affect our relationship - and I truly appreciate that from him, because I think with some other general managers, they just get sick of you and say, 'You're gonna do it this way.' I appreciate him allowing me to give my views, because I can get stubborn, obviously, but he's willing to listen to my views and we work through it."

***

ON THE RUN

Basil McRae first met Kekalainen when both worked for the Blues, around 2006. They clicked pretty quickly as friends, two former NHL players who'd transitioned into the front office.

They also bonded through their mutual passion for exercise and fitness. They began distance running together, eventually completed five marathons together and expanded their friendly competitions to the tennis court.

"We kind of have that in common, those same hobbies, as far as working out and different things," said McRae, whom Kekalainen has hired twice in Columbus - first as a scout and then as director of player personnel. "That's where you see how competitive Jarmo is. I always tell him I'm playing, 'employee tennis,' or 'employee running,' so I always let him win, but he's obviously a pretty fit guy. He's in good shape and he's competitive. We have a lot of fun kind of taunting each other, that's for sure."

McRae is still an avid marathoner, last completing one last spring in Denmark during the IIHF Mens World Championship. Kekalainen doesn't have the time required to train for marathons now, but he and McRae still hit the pavement occasionally.

Two years ago, during a first-round series against the Penguins, they blew off steam by running five or six miles along the river in Pittsburgh.

"It's just some common ground that we share and kind of a relief sometimes," McRae said. "If things at the rink get a little too intense or get tough, exercise is good relief for us both."

Their long runs of the past also helped them learn a lot about each other.

"We'd talk about pretty much everything," McRae said. "You talk about hockey. You talk about running. You talk about travel. You talk about your family. Really, if you go for a three-hour run, and it's a long, slow run and you're getting your miles in, you touch on a lot of things. Then you just get to a point where you can't talk anymore, because you're so tired."

***

SAUNA AND HOCKEY

If there's one thing Kekalainen enjoys as much as exercise and competition, it's what happens afterward.

"He just lives for saunas and hockey … and family," Davidson said, laughing. "Family first, hockey second, saunas third. He's a typical Finn."

Shero, Zito and anybody within Kekalainen's inner circle can attest to that, because they, too, have learned the power of the sauna - from him.

"There's a Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki," Shero said. "He brought me there at the world championships a few years ago, me and [coach Dan Bylsma] and him. But it's a lot different than you've ever seen in your life. The Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki is like an exclusive place. We'd heard about it, but you can't just go. It's this exclusive society. So, the three of us went. It was awesome."

At the end of it, the three of them walked over to a frigid body of water nearby and hopped in - something Shero will never forget.

"The water felt about 20 degrees at that point," he said. "I still jumped in. You have to. I'm glad we went. I haven't asked him to go again, but it was fun."

Kekalainen loves it. In fact, he'd probably like to do some quality thinking in the sauna about this pending season and all the uncertainties.

"I had one in Michigan, but I haven't been able to build one here yet," he said. "It's like a steam room. It's just relaxing, only way less maintenance. Imagine a steam room with zero maintenance. That's sauna. You put it on, it's hot and you go inside and enjoy it. I think and I sweat and let the toxins out, and I think again. And then I have a cold beer after it and relax. I love it."

Almost as much as a gameday afternoon.

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