The St. Louis Blues have been considered one of the top NHL organizations over the past few years by publications such as Hockey's Future, who currently rank St. Louis only after Nashville and Los Angeles for the overall quality of their prospects. A large portion of the credit for rebuilding the Blues' farm system goes to Assistant General Manager and Director of Amateur Scouting Jarmo Kekalainen, who has been responsible for bringing talent such as David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Lars Eller, Erik Johnson, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Polak and Lee Stempniak to the Gateway City in recent years. Now set to leave the organization following the 2010 NHL Entry Draft on June 25-26 after signing a five year contract to become President and General Manager of Helsinki's Jokerit in his native Finland, Kekalainen's departure leaves many Blues' fans wondering if their hometown team will now give back their recent gains in scouting, drafting, and player development.
For every pundit that says that Kekalainen lacks the experience to take over as General Manager in St. LouisDirector of Player Personnel and former Stars general manager Doug Armstrong was chosen to take the reins from the retiring Larry Pleau insteadyou will certainly find your share of experts that suggest that the Finn may have been the better choice for the job, and that it's only a matter of time before Kekalainen becomes the first European general manager in the National Hockey League.
Kekalainen's experience isn't limited to St. Louis. Prior to joining the Blues, Kekalainen served in various front office capacities for Ottawaincluding Director of Player Personnel from 1999-2002where he had a hand in securing the likes of Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Ray Emery for the Senators. Additionally, he's had previous general management experience in the Finnish Elite League, ironically for IFK Helsinki, the crosstown rivals of Jokerit. Under Kekalainen, IFK won their only championship in recent memory, in 1998.
Barely returned stateside from scouting the World Championships in Germanyand detoured via his press conference in FinlandJarmo was kind enough to spend some time discussing his past, present and future with me, while somewhere on the road from Detroit to Toronto on Tuesday night, where he'll be attending the 2010 NHL Combine on Wednesday morning.
Timo Seppa: Congratulations on your appointment as President and General Manager of Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League. While you're no doubt excited about the exploits of returning this proud franchise [Five championships between 1992-2002, but finished 10th out of 14 teams in 2009-10] back to prominence, it must be bittersweet for you to be leaving the National Hockey League. Can you reflect upon your NHL experiences, as well as the challenges that lie ahead for you in Finland?
Jarmo Kekalainen: As far as the NHL, there are lots of good memories. I learned a lot. It was definitely worth my while, every second of it, both going to the Ottawa Senators and the St. Louis Blues. I'm still young, so I haven't given up hope on returning one day to the NHL, to be doing the same thing as I'll be doing in Finland. But for now, it's a great challenge to go to Finland, and too good an opportunity to turn down. Whenever you move from anywhere, it's kind of sadgood memories left behind, and maybe a little bit of sadnessbut once you turn the page, then the excitement sets in even more.
TS: It's been a whirlwind 48 hours for you. Can you give us an idea of what your last couple of days have been like?
JK: Once we agreed on the contract while I was in Cologne, watching the World Championships, I got the go ahead from the Blues to do a press conference in Finland on Monday. I flew there on Monday instead of flying back to Michigan, met with the owner, got the contract signed, had a press conference, ran around to a few other interviews and TV shows, and tried to answer about a thousand emails and text messages and phone calls that I received while this was going on. I tried to go to bed early enough to get on my flight at 7 am from Helsinki, but I don't think I got to bed until 1:30 or so, and then had to get up at 5:30 to get on my flight. So yeah, it's been a little hectic. Haven't got much sleep the last few days. And it's not going to get any easier in next week and a half either because I've got the combine starting tomorrow morning and we've got our final meetings starting after that on Saturday afternoon. So it's going to be a very busy week ahead of me, too.
TS: What do you take out of the Combine? How much input does it give you towards your choices in the draft?
JK: It's important support material. The performance on the ice is 99% of our evaluation process, but this is important to support what we've seen on the ice and what we've done for research on the players, on their character, on their background. All of that puts a face on all of our reporting. Then, we have our strength and conditioning coach who comes to see the testing, which is a valuable part of our evaluation process, for sure. Yes, it's important, but it's the most important part is obviously on the ice.
TS: Is there a particular test or tests at the Combine that you put stock in? Perhaps a measure of raw speed or strength? Or the interviews, to learn more about the players' personalities?
JK: It's a combination of all of those things. You hope that there will be more strengths than weaknesses, or red flags, on the kids that you liketo support the decision or the slot that we have for them on the list. But I don't think there's a particular test. With the Combine, we're projecting the potential, seeing what a kid is made of right now and what he might be when he fills out. Sometimes you see there's lot of potential as far as the player's frame and way he's built, that once we get this guy training the right way with our strength and conditioning coach, that it's going to make a huge difference in the player's physique. It's not always so simple that you can say that he's not strong right now or that's he's not explosive right now so he's never going to be. That's why drafting at the age of 18 can be so tricky and so risky, because we just don't know what these guys are going to be four or five years from now.
TS: Even with a quick glance at the fan sites of Jokerit, you can see that there's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm regarding your signing on as general manager. How do you feel about the overwhelmingly positive reception you've received? People are very excited to have an executive of your caliber taking over one of the great franchises of Finnish hockey.
JK: Obviously, it feels great, I can say that. I'll feel even better when that same reception's there when I've done a good job. That's what I try to keep focused on. I've got a task at hand, I've got to do a good job and I've got a lot of work to do. Yes, it's exciting and I'm definitely pleased about the good reception and all that, but at the same time, I don't want to get ahead of myself and pat myself on the back when there's nothing to pat myself on the back about yet.
TS: You've previously won a championship in 1998 as a General Manager in the Finnish Elite League, ironically for HIFK, the crosstown rivals of Jokerit. How did you manage to put together a team that included the likes of Tim Thomas, Brian Rafalski, Olli Jokinen and Kimmo Timonen?
JK: Well, there's a little bit of luck involved in the business of hockey and in sports in general, but a lot of it was hard work. I was scouting at the timevery, very muchworking with the Senators, on the road all the time, looking for good players. My approach to scouting, in building a team, was something unique in the Finnish League at that time. Now there are a lot of scouts working as player coordinators for Elite League teams. The results are usually very good for those teamslike TPS Turku, who won the championship this past year; Ari Vuori, their player coordinator, works for the Detroit Red Wings. I had a different approach from a lot of teams, or at least I was probably the first guy to do that of type of job in the Finnish league. Hard work was a big part of it, as was the trust that I got from the upper management and the board of directors of IFK: "Trust this young guy to do the job, and let him do the job".
TS: What's the key to building a championship franchise, in your opinion? Is the formula for doing so any different in the Finnish Elite League than in the National Hockey League? And if you were ahead of your competition back in the 90s, what is it that you need to do now to stay ahead of your competition?
JK: I've learned a lot along the way, obviously from the eleven years of experience in the NHL, with how professionally management's run in the NHL. That's a big part of how I'm going to be different from 1999, when I left Finland. I was a very young guy and very enthusiastic, and full of ideas, but I didn't have a lot of experience. Now I have a lot of experience and I'm a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser. I still have the same core beliefs for building a winnerwhich is building a strong core, where you have the type of leaders that are going to set an example both on and off the ice, that will grab the guys around them and put them on their backs and say "Here we go, boys!" The hardest part is to find those players and to keep those players. That's the thing that's going to be a strength of mine as a manager. I'm going to be able to find that type of talent and set the right goals for them, because I know what to expect for them. And then build a franchise where all those players are going to be able to concentrate on their job in an optimal environment to do their job. I'm going to try to build a franchise that everybody wants to play for. And hopefully, we'll be able to fill the house so that we can keep up with the hockey world as far as being able to be competitive with salary, while staying wise and smart at the same time. It's a lot of different things. But I believe in putting a winner on the ice, and then business will flourish with the winning team. And a winning team for me is all about the core players that carecare about the team and have the desire to first of all know how much hard work it takes and the desire to keep doing that day after day, where it becomes a routine and a winning culture. And everybody who's on the team, the guys that are already there, they'll see what the leaders and the core players are doing and follow their example, and then whoever comes from outside, comes to the culture and they see right away thatholy smokesthese guys are serious here. So whoever we're going to bring from the outside to that team is going to see that if you want to be part of this team, you're going to have to work hard and you're going to have to want to win and want to do everything you can to win.
TS: What would you say about the state of Finnish hockey? On one hand, Finland was within one period of an Olympic gold medal in 2006, and they respectably captured the bronze medal in 2010. On the other hand, a changing of the guard is occurring, with legendary national team stalwarts like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, and Jere Lehtinen soon headed for retirement. We know about the host of fine young netminders coming out of Finlandlike Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Pekka Rinnebut is Finland still turning out quality world-class skaters?
JK: They haven't for a while, that's a fact. As an organization, for Jokerit, that's going to be one of our goals. We're going to start producing some good young players. It's not going to happen right away. It's going to take a while, but we're going to work at it. We're going to make sure that it's going to happen in the near future. And if it takes a while, it takes a while, but we're going to put in the time, and we're going to put in the framework and we're going to get coaches that know what they're doing and we're going to create an organization that educates the coaches and we're going to make it happen. Whether it's going to be 10 years from now, or 8 years from now or 5 years from nowwhatever it's going to takethere's going to be good players coming out of Jokerit juniors every year. I guarantee you that.
TS: You and I met a long time ago at Clarkson University in the late 80s, where you had a nice career playing for the Golden Knights. In fact, you scored at more than a point per game clip over parts of three Division I hockey seasons. What led you to come play in the NCAA, all the way from Finland? It's not a particularly common path.
JK: It was a lucky coincidence. I played in my home town of Kuopio and an import we hadthis guy by the name of Bob Barneshe knew Cap Raeder [Clarkson coach from 1985-88; currently assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning], and we got to talking about playing college hockey. He mentioned to me that I should go try it. I had always wanted to and one thing led to another and Clarkson contacted me. It took a while it was a process to get through the NCAA with all the different paperworkbut Clarkson stayed patient and helped me out and I ended up there. Lots of memories, good friends, and great education. It's something I'll always be glad that I did.
TS: How did that experience shape your front office career?
JK: I met a lot of people there that have helped me out along the way. Clarkson has a lot of front office executives, as you know. Definitely, Billy O [Bill O'Flaherty, former Director of Player Personnel for the Los Angeles Kings] is still a friend of mine and Dave Taylor's a good friend of mine. I run into those guys a lot. Obviously, they're great guys and I've learned a lot from themBilly O especially, when I was a player there and he was the Athletic Director. He was a guy that helped me out a lot. I'd go to him after every game and talk to him. He was a great talent evaluator. Every game, I'd go get an assessment from him on how I played. He was always honest. He gave me good advice, even when I was leavingI had a year left of my eligibilityhe was really honest and he told me that it was time for me to move on, and I really appreciated that.
TS: Many people have mentioned the possibility of you becoming the first European GM in NHL somewhere down the road. Is there any chance that we'll see you back in North America once you've guided Jokerit to a few championships?
JK: Absolutely. I've said that. Many people have asked me the same question. I've had that as my dream, a driving force behind me. I've always been a bit of a dreamer with everything that I do, whether it's hockey, or running a marathons, or whatever I doI always have dreams that I follow. And being a GM in the NHL has been a dream of mine for a long time, ever since I started working in management. Like I said, those dreams give me the drive and desire that I have to do the job. I'm going to keep that as my dream, but I'm going to focus on the job that I've got to do, so that the dreaming doesn't become dreaming on the job. That's what I try to avoid. There's a big difference between having a dream and dreaming while you're working. I want to concentrate on doing such a good job that people will notice. That's basically how I plan on approaching it.
TS: Finally, do you have any thoughts on the Stanley Cup Finals?
JK: There's a Finn on both teams, so we'll have a Stanley Cup party in Finland for sure. So that's a good thing. And I have to say that Kimmo Timonen is a very good friend of minehis summer house is close to mineand I know that the party's going to be there if they win.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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