Seemed like a good day to dust off this profile on Jarmo Kekäläinen, the Columbus Blue Jackets new GM, who at the time of the story was the St. Louis Blues’ assistant GM.
Click below for the story. Here’s a pdf version.
Eagle Eye Jarmo
Common sense counts when NHL executive Jarmo Kekäläinen builds championship teams. His secret is the skill to control his own passion for hockey.
Jarmo Kekäläinen, a National Hockey League (NHL) executive, loves hockey. He gets a rush out of winning and building championship teams. But to get there, he has to put his emotions aside and believe his eyes and the data. For a scout, seeing is believing.
“The St. Louis Blues select from Warroad High School forward T.J. Oshie.” That sentence by Kekäläinen, the St. Louis Blues Assistant General Manager and Head of Amateur Scouting, made a lot of hard work worth while for a lot of people.
First, there’s naturally T.J. Oshie, the teenage hockey player from an American high school. Being drafted into the NHL is a dream for all young hockey players. Oshie was just one of the players that had their big day at the NHL entry draft in Ottawa last year. All the practices, games and missed social events suddenly cashed in: Oshie hit the big time.
In a way, if only for a day. The real payoff will come the day Oshie finally makes it to the NHL. That may be in a year or two.
It may also be never.
Either way, Oshie is not the only one wishing for his breakthrough. Kekäläinen will also be rooting for him. If Oshie turns out to be the kind of player that Kekäläinen and his scouting organization are betting on, getting the rights to sign him to a lucrative contract is worth every cent they invested in finding him, and other hockey protégés.
Kekäläinen is in charge of the Blues’ amateur scouting organization, which combs through the best young players in the world.
Scouting keeps him on the road. His home, or home base, or both, however you want to put it, is just outside Detroit, Michigan. He says it’s a convenient location for him, as it’s close to an international airport, the big universities in the East, and the Ontario Hockey League north of the border.
On the week of the Profile interview, Kekäläinen landed in Stockholm on Tuesday and saw games in the Stockholm region the same day. The next day, he was in Gavle, Sweden, some 160 kilometers away. On Thursday, he flew to Prague to see some games, then jetted to Gothenburg on Saturday, saw a couple of games there, and returned to Stockholm on Sunday night.
“During the season, I can never say that I need to take a weekend off,” says Kekäläinen.
“I’m lucky to get a Monday with no junior games scheduled. Even if there isn’t a game, there are still the player evaluation reports to read and write, statistics to read and, different ranking lists to go through,” he says.
With a travel schedule like that, it doesn’t matter that Kekäläinen’s house isn’t even in the same state as his employer’s office. And yet, he is the assistant general manager of the club, and involved in every major hockey decision made by the club—such as player trades and signings of new players. But it’s the entry draft that is really his show.
“We have our 13 scouts in strategic spots around the world. They evaluate the players in their own regions before I show up,” he says. “Once a player is rated better than a certain threshold grade, I want to see him play.”
That threshold would be around the second round of the draft.
“I want to see the best players a few times,” he says. “The local scout is my best source of information. If I see somebody play a great game, the scout can tell me additional information about the player. Maybe it was his best game ever against a mediocre opponent. Maybe the player had a fever. And knowing that, I can make a decision. I have to have complete trust in the guys on the ground,” he says.
In the NHL, the draft is the great equalizer. In simple terms, the teams that finish last in the standings get to choose first. Seven rounds of 30 teams choosing players translate into over 200 draft choices.
The way the NHL organizations generally work the draft is using “The List.” After all the player evaluations and interviews, Kekäläinen and his team draw up a list of players they would want to draft.
“Of all the drafted players, only a fraction end up in the NHL and only about one player per team per draft manages to make a prominent NHL career. I expect our organization to find first- and second-rounders that play in the NHL,” he says.
Working through The List in the draft is a game in itself. Practically no NHL teams drafts for currents needs—the players are too young to carry a heavy load in the league—and instead teams, according to Vancouver Canucks’ General Manager Dave Nonis, “draft assets.”
Some “assets” are capitalized by the organization that drafted them, others are traded away for new “assets.”
“Working The List is basically easy. You just list the players in the order of your preference and then strike out the names that have already been drafted before it’s your turn. And then you take the player who’s on top of your list,” says Kekäläinen. He has also been in charge of the draft for the Ottawa Senators when he was their director of player personnel.
At the same time, you have to have a feel for the other clubs and what they might choose. Sometimes it’s worth the gamble to trade your draft pick for a lower one, get something in return, usually an extra pick, because you still get the player you want.
“In Ottawa, we traded our late third-round pick for an early fourth-round pick and got an eighth-round pick in addition. We still got the goalkeeper, Ray Emery, we wanted all along,” says Kekäläinen.
T.J. Oshie was number ten on Kekäläinen’s list last year.
“Our Minnesota scout didn’t believe Oshie would be available when it was our turn. Well, he was,” he says.
Jarmo Kekäläinen is a lone European hockey executive in the NHL, and is generally expected to become the first European general manager of an NHL club. He was the general manager of HIFK, Helsinki in 1998 when the club won the Finnish Elite League championship.
He has been a hockey star most of his life. He climbed through the ranks in Kuopio and debuted on the local team as a 17-yearold. He was also a member of several Finnish junior national teams. He played hockey at Clarkson University in the United States and signed an NHL contract with the Boston Bruins in 1989 as a free agent. He was a member of Team Finland in the 1991 Canada Cup.
He retired at the age of 29 due to injuries.
There are only 30 teams in the NHL, which means that there are only 30 jobs Kekäläinen is ultimately interested in. And to make it to the top one day, he has to be both bold and consistent—and he has to do a good job wherever he is. In 2002, Kekäläinen left the Ottawa Senators after not being promoted to the GM position that became vacant. Today, the Senators are on top of the league, while Kekäläinen’s Blues are in the rebuilding phase.
“It’s a little sad to see the Senators do so well and not be a part of it, but at the same time, it’s good to see the team that I have helped build to do well,” he says.
“It’s the championships that count, and winning that makes all the work worthwhile,” he says, and then adds, “There’s nothing better than to see it all come together in a championship team. I felt that with HIFK in 1998.”
To become the first European general manager in the NHL is something that drives Kekäläinen. It’s not the only thing, and he doesn’t think about it every day, but it’s something he wants. Basically, if he becomes the first European GM, that day can’t be far away.
“Well, a general manager would probably be able to spend more time at home,” he says, laughing. “Seriously, at that point, I would get the power to really build a team. Yes, it would be a high-pressure job, but I always try to turn the pressure into something more positive.”
“I don’t think my being European is an obstacle. I mean, I know my hockey, I have an American university degree and I speak English just as well as the North American GMs. I sincerely believe that if I keep on doing a good job, my day will come,” he says.
“Selection of a GM should be about ability, not nationality.”
Hockey skills are the most visible attribute in a player, but Kekäläinen is even more interested in the intangibles.
“Playing hockey is much more than having fast legs and hands. It’s about instincts, work ethic, winning mentality, heart, and desire,” he says.
Just as the game itself is all about being in the right place at the right time, the same applies for building a career outside of it. Both for Kekäläinen and the players he scouts.
“Find the right players in the right roles. That’s it. If the player evaluations and expectations are correct, the team works. Player evaluation is important because that’s the information the decision making is based on. If the expectations are askew, the result is a disaster. Often a player that looks good gets pigeonholed— and keeps on getting new opportunities but in the wrong role,” he says.
One example is Eero Somervuori, former prodigy who was touted as the new Teemu Selänne when he was 16-years-old and playing for the Jokerit team in Helsinki.
“The club’s marketing created expectations that were simply off. Eero was, and is, a good player, but he wasn’t like Teemu. Eero had to find a new team with more accurate expectations and a role that fit him to get his career on track,” says Kekäläinen.
And that, Kekäläinen says, applies to all teams anywhere in the world. Because to create a real team feeling, not only do the players need to know what is expected of them, they also need to know what the other players’ roles and expectations are, and to respect them.
“First, the biggest mistake a manager can do is to only draft or like players that remind him of his own style. You have to be emotionally detached from your own game. But at the same time, my easiest, and one of the best scoutings was somebody I played with,” he says.
“Tappara, Tampere needed a player, and their GM Kalevi Numminen showed me a list of players they were considering. I looked through it and pointed at a name. I told them that he was a great face-off man, he had great hockey sense, and even though his skating looked a little odd, he could deliver the puck to the right place at the right time. I knew it because he delivered the puck to me game after game in college,” says Kekäläinen.
“I want to be surrounded by people who can make a case for their evaluation. Somebody sitting on a fence is of no use to me, or to the organization,” he says.
T.J. Oshie is no longer a high school student. He’s enrolled in the University of North Dakota and has continued to develop as a hockey player. When North Dakota won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship in March, Oshie was elected to the tournament all-star team.
* * *
… what makes a coach great: Credibility and charisma, respect from players, ability to read and react.
… how to survive on the road: Work out regularly and get enough sleep.
… balancing work and home life: Relax in the summer time after the draft.
Published in Profile, May 2006