COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s a story that starts off sounding like a bad joke.
An American lawyer and a Finnish hockey agent walk into a bar in Sweden…
It was in the spring of 1995 during the Hockey World Championships in Stockholm when Bill Zito, an attorney from Chicago that was in the process of founding his own sports agency, and Jarmo Kekalainen, a young hockey agent based in Finland, first began comparing notes.
The unlikely pair sparked up such a strong rapport that they started a business partnership, linking two sports player agencies on different sides of the globe.
Little did either know at the time, but the foundation was being laid for a friendship and mutual respect that would help both men reach amazing heights in their respective careers.
“The one thing I really liked about him as an agent was that he wasn’t sugarcoating any of the messages to his clients just because they were clients,” Kekalainen told Local 10 on Wednesday. “If they needed to look in the mirror, he would tell him that. It was straight goods from Billy, even to his clients who were paying his bills, so I really respected that.”
Kekalainen’s path took him quickly to the front office. He spent over a decade learning the ropes in the NHL, including five years as the assistant general manager for the St. Louis Blues, before returning to Finland and becoming GM for SM-Liiga powerhouse Jokerit Helsinki.
It wasn’t long before Kekalainen was lured away from Jokerit, and it was his former boss with the Blues, John Davidson, that was the responsible party.
Davidson’s first big addition after becoming president of the Columbus Blue Jackets was asking Kekalainen to be the team’s general manager. Jarmo’s first big move was hiring Zito to be his assistant GM.
Kekalainen said it was one of the easiest decisions he’s had to made.
“Hiring Billy was one of my first moves, and it turned out to be a great one because he was a big part of everything we’ve done here for the past seven years,” he said. “He’s going to be a great general manager.”
When Kekalainen and Zito teamed up in the Columbus front office during the summer of 2013, both knew that their days together would be numbered.
Kekalainen had the position that Zito wanted, and Jarmo badly wanted to help his friend obtain his dream job.
Despite the inevitable impasse, the hockey-loving former agents put their heads down and got to work. They rebuilt the Blue Jackets from the ground up, transforming a franchise with just one playoff appearance in 13 seasons of existence into a perennial playoff team that’s qualified for the postseason in five of the seven years Zito and Kekalainen were on the payroll together, including each of the past four.
As the years passed, and the interviews for vacant GM positions began racking up, Kekalainen started mentally preparing himself for life without Zito.
“I knew his mind was set on moving to this side,” Kekalainen explained. “Even before I had the job [in Columbus], he made it very clear to me that [becoming a general manager] was his goal, and right from when he started working with us, I promised him that I would do anything I can to help him become a general manager, which was his career goal. Now he’s there and I’m excited for him.”
Indeed, Zito has reached his goal of becoming an NHL GM, hired by the Florida Panthers last week following a nearly month-long search that included interviews with over 20 candidates.
It’s no surprise to Kekalainen that Zito blew away Panthers President Matthew Caldwell and team owner Vincent Viola during the interview process. There is a lot that Zito, a Yale graduate with a law degree from University of Wisconsin, brings to the table, from the depth of his hockey prowess to the sharpness of his business sense.
“He’ll bring a lot of different areas of knowledge into that organization,” Kekalainen said. “He’s done a great job for us with the pro scouting, organizing it. He’s a tremendous negotiator when it comes to contracts, and a savvy businessman, but he’s also got a great eye for talent.”
It’s that great eye for talent and just a genuine love for the game of hockey that started, as it does for many of us, as a young child playing the game, that doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention as do Zito’s business skills and accomplishments.
His reputation as a lawyer, an agent, an executive and a negotiator has overshadowed the roots of what allow him to use those white collar attributes to excel in the blue collar world of ice hockey.
“That’s one thing that I’ve told everybody who’s asked me about Billy, is that don’t get fooled by the law degree and the agent business background,” Kekalainen said. “He’s coached in hockey, he’s played Division One college hockey, played in Europe, he’s been involved with Team USA, he’s done it all. He was doing each area of our hockey operations here in Columbus. I moved him from amateur scouting to pro scouting to negotiations to building good relationships with our players, so he’s done it all, and he knows what it takes to be a general manager.”
Zito, 55, decided as a 30-year-old agent that the goal he would set for himself, the one he would focus his effort and energy on for the next 25 years, was to run a team in the National Hockey League.
Attainable? As it turns out, yes.
Taking a step back and looking at his career path, a case can be made that Zito’s hard work and success over past three decades have been building up and leading him to this one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything he’s ever wanted.
Will he capture it, or just let it slip?
My apologies. It’s difficult not to fall down the rabbit hole of a “Lose Yourself” inner-jam session when it syncs up with the story your telling.
But back to the Panthers new GM, and his reputation for being the hardest working guy in the room that never flinches in the face of adversity, who you’ll never hear complain that his palms are sweaty, knees are weak, or arms are heavy.
Kekalainen didn’t hesitate with his answer when asked if Zito, a man who is defined by his ability to set, achieve and surpass even the most ridiculous goals, could handle the challenge of turning around the success starved, seemingly forever floundering Florida Panthers franchise.
“Oh, he’ll be right up for it,” Kekalainen exclaimed. “He likes challenges, and he’s a very hard-working guy. You will get an email from him at 4:30 in the morning, and then there he is up late at night watching the games too, so I don’t know when he gets his rest. I could never get by with that little rest and sleep. He’s a relentless worker, he loves the game and he loves being around the team. He will do everything in his power to do a good job for the Florida Panthers.”