COLUMBUS – Jarmo Kekalainen had one dominant emotion when John Davidson asked him to be the next general manager of the Blue Jackets.
“Pure excitement,” he said without hesitating. “That was the first thing that was part of every conversation we had.”
And for good reason, too. The 46-year-old Kekalainen never had an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup during his 55-game NHL career, but once it became apparent where his career was headed, he was determined to hoist it wearing a suit and tie. The journey began with the Ottawa Senators and continued in St. Louis with Davidson, where Kekalainen spearheaded the Blues’ highly successful draft efforts and helped construct the team that won the 2012 Central Division title.
Now the third GM in Blue Jackets history, the worldly Kekalainen comes back to North America to pursue the dream after spending two years as president and GM of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League.
Kekalainen finally met the Blue Jackets in Detroit on Wednesday and – as he said he would last week – began to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The first task is to gain an innate understanding of his new team, he said, and he has already seen one quality in spades.
“I think the character that’s there and the competitiveness in the team, playing with an edge, work ethic…those are key ingredients for any team,” Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. “We talk about skill, speed, the pace of the game and all that and you can have all the skill in the world, but if you don’t have character, it won’t take you very far. We’re building a strong foundation with players who have a lot of character and competitiveness in them.”
Kekalainen was able to briefly meet with the Blue Jackets before their morning skate in Detroit, and his message was short and simple: he wants to get to know them all, inside and out, and not just as hockey players.
Building lasting trust goes a long way in the relationship between management and team, he said, and it’s one thing he wants to establish immediately in Columbus.
“You have to know people very well to know what makes them tick and what they’re all about, what motivates them,” Kekalainen said. “Then, you can set the right expectations from a management point of view, and right now, that’s my first priority. We want the expectations to be clear for everyone and know what their role is on this team, and it’s first in the order here for me.”
Laying the groundwork for a north-bound journey is something Kekalainen has already started working on, and he was hard at work hours after accepting the job last week. Davidson referred to Kekalainen as a “worldly” person, and it’s evident with his background and education: Kekalainen is fluent in three languages (Finnish, English, Swedish) and has collegiate-level education in German.
Kekalainen earned a bachelor’s degree from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. and a master’s from the University of Tampere in Finland, but his hockey education has been global.
“When I get asked about the European factor, I always tell people that nationality is a secondary quality of a person,” Kekalainen said. “I don’t think it’s a disadvantage where you come from…I think it comes down to the type of player you are and what kind of person and teammate you are. I don’t think the cover of the passport is important here; we’re looking for character, heart, perseverance, work ethic and competitiveness.
“The world’s a smaller place. Good players come from everywhere these days and we’re going to have an open mind.”
It’s a mentality and directive shared by his boss, and Davidson started the “brick by brick” approach when he joined the Blue Jackets in October. For Kekalainen, working in tandem with Davidson figures to make the transition smoother having someone alongside who shares your beliefs and philosophies on building a team.
“I obviously know him well from St. Louis and it’s huge to be able to work with a person I can trust -- I think that goes both ways, too,” Kekalainen said of Davidson. “Together, we can start building something special here.
“Whenever you work with someone, whether it’s your boss or part of a team, you want to have their trust in your abilities and in you as a person. I know JD is a great leader and I think I know him well enough to say that he’s not only a great professional and leader, but he’s a great person, too. That’s a great starting point for us in Columbus.”