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Blue Jackets name Kekalainen new general manager

by Adam Kimelman

Since being hired as the Columbus Blue Jackets' president of hockey operations, John Davidson has talked about building the organization brick by brick.

Wednesday, he admittedly added one of the biggest bricks to his construction project, hiring Jarmo Kekalainen as general manager. He replaces Scott Howson, who was fired Tuesday after nearly six years on the job.

"It's a big brick -- an important brick," Davidson said Wednesday. "It's a brick that's going to have a lot of weight on it."

It's a weight Davidson has no doubt Kekalainen, the first full-time European-born GM in NHL history, can bear.

"Hockey is a truly global game and there are very few people whose knowledge of the game in North America and abroad surpasses that of Jarmo Kekalainen," Davidson said. "He is intelligent, hard-working and a tremendous evaluator of talent. He is a terrific addition to the Blue Jackets family and will play an important role in our efforts to move our organization forward in the coming years."

Kekalainen will be unable to join the team until his immigration paperwork is finalized, which Davidson said he doesn't think will take more than a few days. Kekalainen said as soon as the paperwork is finalized, he'll be on the first plane to North America.


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"I'm absolutely thrilled about it," Kekalainen said. "I'm honored. I want to thank the McConnell family and John Davidson and [team president] Mike Priest for having the faith in me and making this decision. I'm absolutely thrilled and humbled in front of a big challenge, but also confident I've earned the opportunity. I will roll up my sleeves and get to work. I'm really excited about it."

In the meantime, assistant GM Chris MacFarland will accompany the team on its upcoming six-game road trip, which starts Friday at the Los Angeles Kings. Davidson said he expects to join the team at some point during the trip.

Davidson also said there were no further changes planned for the coaching or scouting staffs. Kekalainen agreed, saying he wanted time to evaluate the entire organization before he makes any changes.

"I've always approached every job that I've had with an open mind of getting to know people, evaluating people I'm going to work with and want to work with," he said. "That'll start from the players and the coaching staff and the scouts and go through everybody. I think that's a strength of mine that I'm going to use again in this job. I'm going to come with an open mind and basically be preaching the same story as [Davidson], we're going to build brick by brick and one step at a time."

Davidson and Kekalainen worked together for four seasons with the St. Louis Blues, where Davidson was team president and Kekalainen was director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager.

"I always had a close working relationship with Jarmo and then a friendship that really developed working with him in St. Louis," Davidson said. "He's going to be the first European general manger in our League [but] I look at Jarmo as a person that has a world of experience. Thirty percent of the players in our League are European. Jarmo … he's very intelligent about the world of hockey worldwide, not only in Europe but also here in North America. We expect him to do a very good job for us and he's very excited for it."

Kekalainen has spent the past three seasons as general manager of Jokerit in the top Finnish professional league, SM-liiga. Jokerit has a nine-point lead atop the standings after finishing third last season.

However, Davidson said Kekalainen's goal always was to become the general manager of an NHL team. Ironically, Kekalainen was a candidate for the GM post in St. Louis when Davidson opted to hire Doug Armstrong. That prompted Kekalainen to take the job with Jokerit.

"I knew he wanted to come to the NHL and get back and be a general manager," Davidson said. "That's his dream and something he's worked very hard at. He's a smart guy, graduated [Clarkson] University. He's taken a lot of courses to enhance his way of doing business in North America. He's a very worldly person.

"He knew he couldn't be a general manager [in the NHL] at the time, so he decided to go back to Finland because he had a great offer there. He took advantage of it, did a great job with it. And now that's marched him forward to this opportunity. He's worked at everything he's had. He's had success at everything he's done. We expect the same."

Kekalainen is best known in North America for his draft prowess -- his talent evaluation and draft skill helped turn around losing situations with the Ottawa Senators and St. Louis Blues -- but said returning to Finland took him back to his roots running a team, which he felt he needed. Prior to coming to North America, he was GM of HIFK, which he helped lead to the SM-liiga title in 1997-98.

"When I came back [to Finland], one of the things that I missed … was the everyday action of being with a team, managing a team, dealing with the coaching staff, dealing with players individually, living through the excitement of the game, the wins and losses," Kekalainen said. "It's the closest you can get to that thrill you had as a player. That's what I truly enjoy and that's something I got myself back to when I came back to Helsinki again. It sure felt just as good as I thought it would. And I know again why I missed it so much."

The scouting part of it won't be far from his rebuilding effort with the Jackets, however, as Columbus has three picks in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, considered to be the deepest in 10 years.

"He's going to be first European general manager in our League [but] I look at Jarmo as a person that has a world of experience. Thirty percent of the players in our League are European. Jarmo ... he's very intelligent about the world of hockey worldwide, not only in Europe but also here in North America. We expect him to do a very good job for us and he's very excited for it."
-- Blue Jackets president John Davidson

"When I see the three first-round picks, my eyes light up," Kekalainen said. "It's a great opportunity for the franchise. It's something that's a really good opportunity to start building from. I have seen most of the top European prospects. I will have some work ahead of me to get to know the top North American prospects. I'm confident we have a scouting staff in place that has done its work and I've already gotten familiar with their reports and lists. … I think it's a great opportunity and we're going to emphasize the importance of that. I'm sure everyone in the organization knew the importance of the upcoming draft before I joined the team. I think it's a great starting point here for me and the organization for getting to the next level."

Davidson said seeing Kekalainen's skill at talent evaluation first-hand in St. Louis was a big part of him getting the job.

"You try to look at the whole picture," Davidson said. "You try to look at everything that you want in a general manager. You look at the strengths. We feel here that we know how important the draft is, especially with a deep draft -- and this one is a deep draft. We as an organization have had a number of meetings already trying to set up how we're zeroing in on the draft itself. This is going to also give Jarmo some time to jump into this. And he'll become a major voice regarding the upcoming draft. That played into it. It's part of it, it's an important part of it, but it's not all of it."

Davidson said the job ahead of Kekalainen in Columbus is similar to what they went through rebuilding St. Louis.

"This is kind of an instant replay in some ways," Davidson said. "When he was in St. Louis we went through a process that's very similar. This club was 30th last year -- that's a fact of life. We're scratching and clawing to get better. … Jarmo knows what we did in St. Louis and how we went through it, and in some ways this is similar. There's no sprinkle of dust and all of sudden you become a good hockey team. It's roll up the sleeves, there's hard work ahead, and that's what he's very excited about, the challenge and the battle. We can all say what we want to do, that we're going to work our tails of and get there, which we're going to do, but there's 29 other teams that say the same thing. We have to do our thing, make good decisions and really work at it, and Jarmo knows what's expected."

Kekalainen said he sees the same thing, and will approach it similar to how he did with the Blues: putting in the work every day until things are pointed in the right direction.

"I've been with two organizations where we started from building through the draft, step by step and brick and by brick, with Ottawa and St. Louis, and this is a similar challenge and a great one," he said. "I'm glad to unite with JD. We've gone through the experience once already. We both know each other, we've worked together and had some success in St. Louis. I think it'll be a great starting point. This is a new situation. I have to get to know everybody before I can start making decisions and move forward. I think this is a great opportunity. I knew it’s a proud organization and franchise. It's the NHL. Every team wants to win the Stanley Cup and that's the goal for us, to build and sustain success and be a contender for years to come."

Hiring Kekalainen is the first major move for Davidson, who was hired by the Blue Jackets in October 2012. He said Tuesday's decision to fire Howson was not a reflection on his tenure as GM, but rather part of a cultural change he has in mind for the organization.

"I try to be methodical and try not to jump to conclusions, because mistakes get made," Davidson said. "I've been able to observe, which I said I was going to do when I got here. I just have a gut feeling that change was necessary. We're trying to go forward [and] sometimes change is a necessary thing. I feel that in our situation, if you look at the entire picture, that this is the right move. I know Jarmo is going to have success. He's a driven man. He's going to help us in a lot of different areas."


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