Blue Jackets hire first European GM

The Columbus Blue Jackets hurried to make history.

Just more than 24 hours after firing Scott Howson, they
announced the hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen of Finland as the first
European to be a general manager in the National Hockey League.

Kekalainen, director of amateur scouting with the St. Louis
Blues 2002-10, held a news conference Wednesday in his native
Finland at the same time the Blue Jackets Blue Jackets held theirs
in Ohio.

”One of my dreams since I hung up my skates has been to be a GM
of an NHL team sometime. Now that dream has come true,” Kekalainen
said in Helsinki at the home arena of the Jokerit club, where he’s
been GM since 2010. ”I’m really happy and pleased, even proud,
that I’ve been give this chance.”

The 46-year-old, who played sparingly in the NHL, worked closely
with Columbus director of hockey operations John Davidson with the
Blues. When the Blues hired Doug Armstrong as general manager in
2010 instead of Kekalainen, Kekalainen returned to Finland to take
over as GM of Jokerit in Finland’s top league.

”Jarmo and I have a relationship that goes back a number of
years, most recently with the St. Louis Blues organization where he
was an assistant general manager and in charge of the amateur
draft,” Davidson said. ”I look at Jarmo as a person who has a
world of experience. Thirty percent of the players in our league
are European. He’s very intelligent about the world of hockey, not
only in Europe but also in North America.”

Kekalainen’s current team is in first place. So badly did
Kekalainen want to return to the NHL as a GM, that he had an
unwritten agreement with the club’s owner that he could be let out
of his contract if a GM job developed in the NHL. He is expected to
arrive in Columbus as soon as travel and visa issues are
resolved.

”I’m humbled but at the same time have faith in myself. I
believe I’ve deserved this opportunity through my own hard work,”
he said. ”Now I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go there and
build a team out of the Columbus Blue Jackets that seriously aims
to win the Stanley Cup.”

He’ll face a number of challenges.

Under Howson, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs in 2008-09 but
have fallen to the depths of the league since. They had the worst
record in the league a year ago, have a record of making a mess of
things at the draft and in trades. Attendance has fallen; there are
published reports that the club sold between 7,000 and 8,000 season
tickets this season.

The Blue Jackets are 4-7-2 in this lockout-shortened season and
leave Wednesday to begin a six-game Western swing that starts in
Los Angeles on Friday night.

The club does have three first-round picks in this summer’s
amateur draft.

”We feel here that we know how important the draft is,
especially with a deep draft and this one is a deep draft,”
Davidson said. ”He’ll become a major voice regarding the upcoming
draft. That certainly played into it. That’s a part of it, but it’s
certainly not all of it.”

Howson, a 52-year-old Toronto native, was hired as executive
vice president and general manager on June 15, 2007. He took the
place of Doug MacLean, who had guided the franchise from its
inception, through its first NHL season in 2000-01 and the next
five campaigns.

He was in charge in 2008-09, when the Blue Jackets went a
franchise-best 41-31-10 and made the playoffs with star forward
Rick Nash and Calder Trophy-winning goalie Steve Mason leading the
way.

But the club then fell on hard times and last season was an
NHL-worst 29-46-7.

Midway through the season, Howson revealed that Nash, the team’s
captain, had asked to be traded. It took months before Nash was
dealt along with a minor league defenseman and a conditional
third-round pick to the New York Rangers for forwards Artem
Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, 21-year-old defenseman Tim Erixon
and a first-round pick.

The Blue Jackets won their opener this season at Nashville, and
earned another point in their second game. But they lost eight of
10 games before Monday night’s surprising 6-2 victory over San Jose
– scoring as many goals in one night as they had in their three
previous games combined.

”I’m anxious to get down to work and meet this new challenge,”
said Kekalainen, who lived in the U.S. for 13 years before his
return to Finland.

He played 55 games in the NHL as a left wing over six seasons
with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins.

”I know Jarmo’s going to have success,” Davidson said. ”He’s
a driven man.”

AP Writer Matti Huuhtanen contributed to this story from
Helsinki.

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