[We interrupt our scheduled recap of the Columbus Blue Jackets players at the quarter-point of the season for a discussion of current events.]
Less than 24 hours after dismissing Scott Howson from his general manager duties with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team announced that Jarmo Kekäläinen will serve as general manager going forward.
Rather than spend time regurgitating the results of a Google search of the man’s name - for you probably know as much about him as I do – I’d rather discuss what I think has happened with the team and it’s new major domo.
CBJ President of Hockey Operations John Davidson hasn’t been shy about going on TV, podcasts and radio, and I’ve had a chance to listen to him a few times. Once you get past the obvious host awe that they are talking to JOHN DAVIDSON and the obligatory “Tell us about the time…” stories, you pick up on some very interesting nuggets.
First, “JD” is focussed like a laser beam on the three first-round picks that the Blue Jackets hold in the 2013 NHL draft. Nary a speaking opportunity passes without him discussing it and all the things one can do with the picks…not to mention how much they will help form the cornerstone of the team going forward if drafted well and developed properly.
Second, he doesn’t care much for the team’s forwards and especially their inability to score goals. But it’s not, “We can’t score goals and are working on it.” It’s more like “We can’t score goals, so the pressure is on our defensemen and especially our goalies. They have next to no margin for error.” He talking as if he’s resigned to that problem not getting fixed any time soon. If I was a CBJ forward, I would think long and hard before signing an extension on that condo lease.
Third, he really likes Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. By extension, he admires the New York Rangers and John Tortorella’s relentless style of play and work ethic. Especially with this round of media availabilities, JD has just gushed about those two.
Lastly, and most germane to the Kekäläinen hire, Davidson tells us that he has been out and about, talking with Blue Jackets stakeholders. Since starting the job here in Columbus, he’s met with sponsors, suite holders, season ticket holders and other fans. He says that he’s heard where the fans are at, and he appreciates their frustration for a winner on the ice at Nationwide Arena.
Which brings me to February 2nd.
That morning, ticket package holders (like yours truly, who sadly was unable to attend) were invited to watch the morning pregame skate prior to the home game against Detroit and then hang around for a question-and-answer session with JD. FOX Sports Ohio aired a recap of the event at different points in the week; I believe I caught it during an intermission in the February 7th CBJ game against Calgary. The gist of the segment suggested that fans enjoyed themselves, appreciated the chance to have back and forth dialogue with Davidson and left thinking it was going to be a long, long road to competitiveness. Three fans were interviewed on the way out, and all three said, “JD says we have to be patient, so I guess I’ll be patient.” None of them looked excited at the proposition. One of them, a lady maybe in her 50′s, even went so far as to suggest that she’ll be patient – but that she hopes that Davidson’s master plan pays off before she retires.
Right about then, my brain exploded.
I’m not faulting the folks doing the reporting, not in the least. They reported on what happened, what was said and shared a representative sampling of participant reaction. What I faulted – at the time – was what I thought to be either a tone-deafness to fan consternation on Davidson’s part or, worse yet, an admission of impotence in addressing deep-rooted cultural and on-ice performance challenges that face this team in the short term.
Both of these struck me as unacceptable. Remember, this is a ticket revenue-driven league. You must get people through the turnstiles, and that means having the faith and trust of the people buying tickets.
If you’re out there listening to the fans, listen. And if enough fans say something has to change, change something. There really is something to The Wisdom of Crowds. And in a professional sports world where smart NFL team executives overhaul their 50-odd man rosters to go from the outhouse to the penthouse inside of three years time and time again, surely an aggressive NHL team (led by a savvy, long-time participant in the league) could flex its muscles before the end of the next Mayan calendar.
There are things you can do right now as a team’s top executive. Some involve the media, some involve personnel moves. But to leave your most loyal fans thinking you aren’t going to do anything when you were brought in as a change agent…ouch.
So sometime last week – whether that morning skate Q&A session on the 2nd pushed Davidson over the edge, I don’t know – but also won’t overlook the coincidence – the Blue Jackets (JD, presumably) contacted the chairman of Jokerit about Kekäläinen. I’s were dotted and T’s crossed within a week, and here we are. Howson has been removed, and Kekäläinen awaits his work visa.
Whaddya know, JD listened. Better yet, he did something about it.
Of all the things that Davidson could have done, making a change at the general manager position is bold…but also curious on a couple of levels.
First, I think it safe to say that Blue Jackets fans have been frustrated for some time. About what, you ask? All the things JD has ticked off at one point or another: Drafting, player development, the culture of losing and the actual losing itself. (See? JD’s listening!) If anything, fan angst has been boiling at a steep level since last season’s All-Star weekend. Davidson surely has noticed, and it’s clear that all roads on this front end in hockey operations. He now heads hockey operations for the CBJ, and he removed the former head of the same – replacing that man with one whom he said that he trusts to right the ship.
Beyond that, and potentially more critical, are those all-important first round picks in the June 30th NHL draft which he has been talking about since he came to town. Simply put: This is a once-in-a-long-while opportunity, and JD appears to have wanted a man whom he believes can manage the day-to-day operations leading up to the draft – scouting, fielding trade calls, etc. Kekäläinen mentioned the draft in his introductory media conference call and, while fully cognizant of the challenges of being ready for June 30th, sounded excited to be put to work on this task.
So there you have it. With a little planning and forethought, Davidson was able to have his cake and eat it, too. Not only did he effectively respond to fan unrest, but he did so in a way that meaningfully addresses what he sees as the penultimate challenge of his young tenure in Columbus….not giving up on what he’s been talking about yet showing that he was listening to the people he needs to reach.
That’s a pretty shrewd operator, if you ask me.