Blue Jackets’ GM Kekalainen ‘got the bug right away’ for pickleball

Blue Jackets’ GM Kekalainen ‘got the bug right away’ for pickleball

DALLAS, TX - Tennis was always Jarmo Kekalainen’s game of choice… until five years ago when he received an invitation from a buddy in Columbus, OH to give pickleball a try.

Kekalainen, 57, was defeated handily, which instantly got his competitive juices flowing as a former professional hockey player and the current general manager of the NHL’s Blue Jackets.

“He kicked my butt on the pickle court and I was like, ‘Well, this is interesting.’ I got the bug right away because I don’t like losing and there are just so many challenging things about it that caught my eye right away,” said Kekalainen, during a recent conversation at American Airlines Center in Dallas. “Ever since then, I’ve pretty much been converted to pickleball. I still like playing tennis a little bit, but not nearly as much as before.”


While Kekalainen’s professional responsibilities don’t allow for much practice time or tournament play during the season, he still tries to get in a match whenever possible - even on the occasional road trip.

Some of his fellow NHL executives are just as passionate about America’s fastest-growing sport as he is, including Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois and assistant general manager Mathieu Darche, with whom he played in the “bubble” during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I don’t have that many great contacts around the hockey world that I know I could get a game with, but if I do know that I can get a game, I’ll definitely put my paddle in my travel bag,” said Kekalainen. “I’d much rather play pickleball for a workout than ride the stationary bike.”

So what does Kekalainen love about the sport? In a word, everything.

He classifies himself as a 4.5 player who can “play with some 5.0 guys and still handle myself.”

“I play doubles with some ex-athletes and there’s a lot of the camaraderie and chirping that goes on, just like in hockey, but it’s not too serious where somebody’s feelings would get hurt or anything like that. It’s good-hearted chirping. It’s also great exercise,” explained Kekalainen. “The other thing is that it’s so challenging. You always want to get better. That’s why I play sports or do anything in life, to get better at it. Once you think you’ve reached a certain level in pickleball, then you play against somebody who’s better than you, and you realize, ‘I’ve still got some work to do.’ That’s the great part about it, too.”


With that in mind, the Tampere, Finland native makes every effort to watch pickleball clips on Instagram featuring the likes of World No. 1s Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters to pick up some valuable tips and tricks of the trade that he can then incorporate into his own game.

He’s also sharing his love for the sport with his Blue Jackets colleagues, too.

“I try to play pretty regularly with our staff, especially in the offseason, but even during the season we try to get out once a week. We also have a staff tournament every year at the rookie tournament in Traverse City where it’s mandatory participation unless you’re on the injured reserve list,” joked Kekalainen. “That’s such a fun event. It’s always good to see people that hadn’t even played just get really into it. We’ve had some really good games in Traverse City over the years. [Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager] Kris Draper is a very good player.”

The bottom line is that pickleball definitely has a friend in Kekalainen.

He’s even a member of PBX Pickleball now, which affords people the opportunity to “play with and against former pro athletes from baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf and the Olympics.”

“I was always skeptical, and I was always, ‘Tennis, tennis, tennis,’ and ‘Pickleball this and that,’ but it’s so challenging. A lot of people think it’s just a game for older people. Well, go try and play against some of the older people that are really good at it,” said Kekalainen. “I think you’ll change your mind very quickly.”