Kekalainen comes home with Blue Jackets for 2022 NHL Global Series
TAMPERE, Finland — For Jarmo Kekalainen, there is a minor downside to coming home.
The Columbus Blue Jackets general manager is mostly over the moon to be returning here as an executive of an NHL team, revisiting one of the places in his home country that shaped his hockey career.
But he could do with fewer phone calls.
Since the 2022 NHL Global Series against the Colorado Avalanche was announced, Kekalainen has heard from seemingly every person among his contacts, as well as some who don’t make that list.
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“I gained some new friends all of a sudden that somehow got my number that they didn’t have for the past 10 years,” he said, laughing. “But no, it’s great. I bought a lot of tickets to make sure that my family and my friends get a chance to watch us and I didn’t buy enough, but you know, we’ll try our best to get everybody in.”
The two regular-season games against the Avalanche at the new, state-of-the-art Nokia Arena are Friday (2 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, ALT, BSOH) and Saturday and everyone in this hockey-mad city wants to be on hand, according to Kekalainen.
The city is buzzing about the arrival of the NHL, particularly the Blue Jackets.
Not only did Kekalainen play here as well as attend Tampere University, but Columbus forward Patrik Laine also calls the city home.
Laine landed in Columbus on Jan. 23, 2021 when the Blue Jackets acquired him and forward Jack Roslovic for forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft; it arguably is the boldest move made by Columbus since Kekalainen became GM on Feb. 13, 2013.
“[Laine] is a legitimate star here and that’s his true hometown and and he grew up playing for [Tappara of Liiga, the top professional league in Finland], Kekalainen said. “He’s going to have a following there. And there’s going to be a lot of fans waiting for his autograph after the games and practices. So I think it’d be really cool for him.”
There will not be as many fans looking for an autograph from Kekalainen, but his return is a once-in-a-lifetime experience he is savoring intensely.
He has been a blur of activity since the Blue Jackets arrived Monday. That day, he planned a comedy show for the team by Ismo, a famous Finnish-born comedian. On Tuesday, he was glad-handing at the municipal rink in Helsinki where the team practiced. Wednesday, he organized a coaching clinic for a group of elite teenage players and then took part in a paddleball tournament with the staff.
Thursday, he will arrive with his team by train from Helsinki, a 90-minute trip Kekalainen has made countless times. Then he will begin reminiscing, visiting with old friends, possibly making new ones, even if they are not yet among his contacts, and dropping in on favorite haunts.
“We get to explore a little bit of the good parts of Helsinki and then later on we are in Tampere for a few days and so I’m looking forward to it,” Kekalainen said the day after he arrived. “We have a full schedule with the management staff to show them the best of Finland and I’m sure the players have their own schedule as well.”
Kekalainen, 56, was born in Tampere but moved away when he was 3. He came back and played as a junior for Ilves of Liiga before playing for Clarkson University of the NCAA from 1987-89.
After playing 27 NHL games with the Boston Bruins from 1989-91, Kekalainen returned to play for Tappara in 1992-93.
“I played for both of the teams [Ilves and Tappara in Tampere] before I retired so it’s a very familiar city for me. I know the teams and the importance of hockey in that city,” Kekelainen said. “It’s like the mecca of hockey in Finland. The championship banners … at the rink for both of those teams pretty much cover up the whole [ceiling]. There’s a lot of a lot of history, a lot of tradition there and people love hockey and they’re basically born with one of the teams tattooed on their on their chest. It’s a great rivalry there and the local rivalry games are awesome.
“I’ve been part of those as a player and seen many of them even in the stands later on. So it’s always a great feeling to go back there. Lots of good memories and from the studying time and playing time and just going to visit the city.”
This week, Kekalainen will experience new memories from this city, and he knows they might be the best yet.