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But before those dreams could become reality, there were simple days on frozen lakes — Finland has more than 100,000 of them — spent with family members.

“My dad played hockey at the highest level in Finland,” Kekäläinen said ahead of the Blue Jackets’ games this weekend in Tampere, Finland, against Colorado that are part of the NHL Global Series. “He was my coach until I was 16 years old. It ran in our family. I have two brothers who both played.

“Hockey was an everyday discussion in our household, and we played hockey outdoors and street hockey in the summer and pond hockey in the winter until the cows came home. It was one of the things that was part of our daily life.”

Kari Kekäläinen played three seasons in the SM-Sarja, the highest level of Finnish hockey in the 1960s, and he passed on his love of the sport to his three sons. Jarmo is the highest profile, having become the NHL’s first European-born general manager in 2013 with the Blue Jackets, while his brothers Janne and Jari also have made careers in the game. Janne played 11 seasons in the top-level Finnish Liiga then became a scout with Nashville, while Jari spent nearly 20 years in scouting in the Florida organization.

Jarmo and Janne also broke the mold a little bit as players, both opting to go the American college route by playing for Clarkson University in upstate New York. That path helped Jarmo make it to the NHL, as he skated in 55 games over three seasons with Boston and Ottawa, though there simply weren’t many Finnish or even European players enlisting in the NCAA ranks at the time.

“It’s probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” Jarmo said. “It was a great school and a good program, and I got some lifelong friendships and connections from those two years there and ended up making it to the NHL from there. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that.”

It’s become quite common for Finns to play in the NHL, but Kekäläinen is the first to make it to the top of an NHL front office. That alone has made him an influential figure in Finnish hockey, someone who opened a lot of eyes for the way he was able to move up the ranks.

“I feel like a lot of Finnish people don’t understand how big that actually is to be a GM over here,” said Patrik Lainea native of Tampere who plays for the Blue Jackets. “There’s a lot of great people for these jobs, and a person from a country that has only six million people is the general manager of an NHL team. It’s pretty impressive.”

The same front office life might await Korpisalo one day, but for the time being, he’s working simply to get back to his game. The CBJ goaltender had hip surgery late last season and has been battling to get back into game shape, and he made a rehab start last weekend and could be ready to go for the Jackets’ games this weekend against the Avs.

His father, Jari, is a bona fide Finnish hockey legend who spent 12 seasons in the Liiga, mostly with Ässät, where he spent his last seven seasons as the team captain. He then got into the coaching ranks, including four seasons with the club with which he was synonymous during his time on the ice.

It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Joonas was the prototypical son of a player, running around locker rooms and soaking it all in while feeding his own hockey obsession.

“He always brought me into the rink,” Joonas said. “Seeing his pictures when I was a little guy, I was in the rink, in the locker room just hanging around, seeing what the guys do here right now. That’s where it starts. I’ve always been at the rink for as long as I can remember.”

While Jari was a forward who finished with 444 points in 575 games in Finland’s top league, Joonas gravitated to the goaltending position from a young age, eventually telling his father he wouldn’t go to practice unless he was able to play in net. It ended up working out, as his father was a reliable shooting partner whenever Joonas wanted to put on the pads.

“Eventually he retired and started coaching my team, which was pretty cool,” Korpisalo said. “Just going to practice every day, he was a forward and I was a goalie, so he tried to help me out with some stuff. Just in general, he was a huge help in my progress, especially mentally because he knew what it takes to be a professional. When he played, his reputation was that he never quit, and that’s pretty much what he always tried to teach me.”

Korpisalo has done just that, battling to not only reach the NHL but carve out a career with the Blue Jackets that is now in its eighth season. There was a chance he’d leave this offseason in free agency, but he re-signed with Columbus and now has the unique opportunity to join the team in the country where it all began for him.

“Just playing an NHL game in Finland, I never even dreamed about it,” Korpisalo said. “Being able to do that, it’s going to be really cool. The fans are going to be really loud. The people love hockey so much there, so it’s going to be really cool.”

Plenty of Ties

The biggest draws for the Blue Jackets in Finland are Korpisalo, Kekalainen and Laine, the three key members of the CBJ staff and playing roster who hail from the Nordic country.

But it’s not hard to find several ties to the country as you look up and down the CBJ roster. Included in that group is Kent Johnsonwho returns to Helsinki and Tampere after playing on Team Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Championship held in the cities this past summer.

“It was awesome,” Johnson said before the team left. “I loved it. They were both really nice (cities), different spots. I didn’t get to spend as much time in Tampere, but it will be nice to go back.”

It’s also a bit special for Johnson because his mother, Anita, was born in Finland. She has made the trip over and will get a chance to see the games in her home country while also seeing family that remains in her native country.

There are plenty of Finland ties in the CBJ front office as well. Kekalainen is joined by three Finns in the CBJ front office in director of amateur scouting Ville Siren, European development coach Jarkko Ruutu and European goaltending development coach Niklas Backstrom, all of whom were at the Jackets’ practice Tuesday in Helsinki.

On top of that, it’s a return trip for a few members of the CBJ staff. Jared Boll played for TUTO in the second-tier Mestis during the NHL’s 2012-13 lockout, while Jody Shelley was a member of JYP in Finland’s top league during the 2004-05 lockout. Director of pro scouting Josef Boumedienne played for Tappara, Jokerit and Kärpät during his career, while assistant coach Steve McCarthy spent a season with TPS.

Roslovic’s Return

Laine has known Roslovic since the two were teammates on the Winnipeg Jets before their January 2021 trade to Columbus, and the two have been to Finland together before this trip. In November 2018, the Jets traveled to Helsinki for two games against Florida as part of the NHL Global Series.

It was a homecoming for Laine, one he appreciated, even though this one will be a little more special because the Blue Jackets are playing in his hometown of Tampere for the two games rather than the capital of Helsinki. While it’s a trip near and dear to Laine’s heart, he’s also chirped Roslovic repeatedly since the games have been announced for what Laine perceived as a lack of enthusiasm about the previous visit to the country.

“I know Jack hated it,” Laine said in his trademark deadpan style back in April.

Given the chance to respond to Laine’s comments, Roslovic denied the accusation.

“That’s not very true,” he said. “That’s not as true a statement as it might sound. It’s a great place. I just said that Columbus is better.”

Roslovic admitted the food wasn’t his favorite and the weather “wasn’t perfect” for the Jets’ visit to Finland, but he said he still enjoyed himself during Winnipeg’s trip. And this time around, he expects it to be even better, thanks in part to Laine showing the way.

“Patty and I, we’re going to go see his new house and see around the city,” Roslovic said. “I think I’m going to get a little bit more of a behind the scenes look at Finland instead of just the street we were on the whole time. It will be more of a tour.”

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