Behind the scenes in Columbus
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has a little grin, almost enjoying seeing his colleagues uncomfortable for a moment. To his left, president John Davidson and new assistant general manager Bill Zito are sitting, plugging their ears in anticipation of the Blue Jackets cannon about to go off.
"Here it comes!" Kekalainen says while the Blue Jackets take the ice before Thursday's final preseason game for Columbus.
Kekalainen points toward Davidson and Zito as the cannon goes off.
"It gets me every time," Zito says.
The first impression of Kekalainen is that he looks more like a Finnish Bond villain than an NHL GM. He's wearing a slim-fitting designer suit, Christian Dior frames and doesn't look like the typical hockey guy who spent 15 years on the road scouting players while working his way up to his current position. He's a cerebral thinker, a good listener and when he talks, it's in a low tone with a seriousness that carries extra weight with each word.
But here, in a Nationwide Arena suite near the corner of the ice, that seriousness lifts. Kekalainen has a mischievous side, and he seems to enjoy messing with those sitting around him. And it's an impressive group sitting around him.
Davidson, the man who brought the drastic culture change to Columbus with his hiring last October, sits in the corner and is the most vocal of the group. When anthem singer Leo Welsh steps forward to sing, he joins the Nationwide Arena crowd in shouting "Leo" as Welsh's name is introduced. Later, when the Blue Jackets go on a power play, he almost gives a play-by-play of the action on the ice. Moments before Nikita Nikitin scores a first-period goal, it's Davidson who shouts "There it is!" anticipating the scoring chance.
Sitting to Davidson's right is Zito, the man who gave up his successful hockey agency to join an old friend in Kekalainen as they try to turn around a franchise still looking for its first playoff win. This happens to be the same night that Zito's former client Tim Thomas signed a one-year deal with the Panthers that could be worth $3.75 million if he hits all his bonuses. If Zito is upset he's no longer getting a cut of those millions, there's no sign of it. His focus is squarely on the team skating on the ice.
And to Kekalainen's right, sitting off to himself on a few empty rows of seats in the suite is former Penguins GM Craig Patrick, his legs crossed on top of the seats in front of him. It's truly a unique mix of experience and skills sets, from the connected Davidson to the tough-negotiating Zito, who once got Ville Leino a $27 million deal that looks even more impressive in a current climate where free agents sit unsigned.
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