Sitting about 25 rows up from the floor at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh last week was a familiar face.
Jarmo Kekalainen was the Blues' director of amateur scouting for eight years before leaving the organization in May 2010 to become the general manager of Jokerit HC in Finland. He was back in the U.S. over the weekend, but it was to witness as many as four of his players be selected in the draft, not be responsible for making picks himself.
"I wasn't nervous before the draft," Kekalainen joked. "I wasn't nervous when I was doing it, but you get the butterflies because this is your game day and the scouts' game day. So you need a little butterflies. But I'm just relaxing and enjoying the show and hoping that our players get drafted high." (One of Kekalainen's players, Teuvo Teravainen, was picked No. 18 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks).
Two summers ago, in his last act before leaving the Blues, Kekalainen pulled off a solid 1-2 punch for the organization. He selected Jaden Schwartz with the No. 14 overall pick and then traded prospect David Rundblad to Ottawa for the No. 16 overall pick. With the 16th pick, Kekalainen chose Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko.
Recently, emotions were running high among Blues fans as they awaited Tarasenko's decision to come to the NHL or remain in Russia. Kekalainen waited anxiously as well.
"Absolutely," Kekalainen said. "I was really excited when I saw that he decided to come over. The draft is not successful until the guy comes over and plays in the NHL. People can say all the want after the draft, 'Oh, that was a great pick.' It's not a great pick until he plays in the NHL and plays a lot."
Being in Finland, Kekalainen said that he has been able to see Tarasenko play several times since drafting him.
"I think he has the tools to be an impact player in the NHL," Kekalainen said. "He's not a young kid, junior kid coming out of the junior leagues. He's the leading scorer in the KHL playoffs and had a great year in the regular season too. He's a really strong kid. Obviously he needs to get used to the North American hockey and the (smaller) rinks, but he has the potential to be an impact player right off the bat."
Schwartz, meanwhile, signed with the Blues late last season and looked like he belonged, scoring two goals in seven games. He'll be in camp next September, too.
"Schwartz has just gotten his feet wet," Kekalainen said. "Time will tell how (Schwartz and Tarasenko) do, but I think they're both going to be good players. I thought so at the time of the draft and I still think so."
Kekalainen, who signed a five-year contract with Jokerit, says that he's enjoying his new job as a GM. The club was 10th in the league before Kekalainen took over in 2010, jumped to sixth in his first year and climbed to third this season.
"That's what I love to do, managing a team ... going to the games where you can feel the excitement of wins and losses," he said. "It's the closest thing to still be able to play. I get a lot of interesting stuff on my plate that I had almost forgotten about ... doing sponsorship deals. That's a real important part of our business, the sponsorship companies that want to be involved with our club.
"It's not just the hockey operations ... we sort of mingle with our sponsors all the time to keep them happy and keep them coming, so they keep supporting us. That's why I went to business school to use some of those skills at some point in my life. It was time to get back to that, so I wouldn't forget about it. I'm really enjoying it and love living in Helsinki. My daughters know me now because I'm at home every night, so it's good."
But Kekalainen acknowledged that he always keeps an eye on the Blues.
"I get up at 5 in the morning every time they played on the West Coast in the playoffs to watch them," he said. "It's exciting to see those guys make it and make a career out of it. I'm really happy for them. Most of the guys that we drafted were good people and good guys. I had a pretty good relationship with a lot of them, like David Backes. I'm so happy that he's doing well.
"I said 'Congratulations' to Roman Polak when he signed his contract. I remember talking to him when he was so frustrated going back to the minors. I said, 'You know what? Ten years from now, you'll laugh and think that it was a great experience when you have lots of money in the bank and you've played 500 or 600 games in the NHL.' He's on his way now. It's great to see."
It was great to see Jarmo again.