In the last week, I and The Hockey Writers’ Columbus Blue Jackets insider Mark Scheig got a chance to interview Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. Many topics were touched upon including Boone Jenner’s coming-out party, the Blue Jackets exciting and deep prospect pipeline, and an overall breakdown of the looming trade deadline.
While there was a lot of good discussion around the team’s past, present, and future, another interesting little nugget was also discussed – pickleball. The game and its connection to the Blue Jackets was a bit of a surprise to us.
What is Pickleball?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no pickle involved.
Pickleball is a combination of several racquet sports. The game is played on a badminton-sized court, with a net that is slightly higher than the one used in tennis. The ball used is a whiffle ball, that’s batted around between racquets that are essentially larger ping pong paddles. The game can be played in singles or doubles. It’s scored similar to badminton, with points to 11 or 21 with a win by two rule in place.
It’s referred to by many as the fastest-growing sport in America. It’s replacing tennis courts in many country clubs, because of its popularity. It’s even in consideration to become the official state sport of Washington. The game is particularly attractive to the older demographic as it’s a lot less physically demanding than tennis or other racquet sports, but still has the same level of competition.
Jarmo Kekalainen and Pickleball
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Blue Jackets connection to pickleball is through Kekalainen, but finding the new game took a bit of a journey for the Finnish executive.
“My number one sport besides hockey has always been tennis. I love tennis,” says Kekalainen. “I play tennis a lot here in Columbus with a couple of my buddies, one being Freddy Modin, the old Blue Jacket, and great NHL player. He’s a great tennis player as well. But it was another guy by the name of Wendel Tucker that I played tennis regularly with and he asked me, why don’t you come and play pickleball with us? And I was first a little skeptical, I’m like, Pickleball? Isn’t that for the old guys?”
Kekalainen, 55, doesn’t quite qualify as a youngster anymore but has managed to keep himself physically fit. He would have to be to keep up with the other players in his group, which has a list around 30 names long featuring many former professional athletes, including Modin and former Major League Baseball pitcher and Ohio-native, Kent Mercker.
“I went to this group on Saturday with about 16 guys playing and a lot of them were older than me – and they kicked my ass. So I was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I better get a little more serious about this.Jarmo Kekalainen on his first time playing Pickleball
He’s been hooked to the game ever since and made the game a mainstay in his personal and professional lives. That includes building a pickleball court at his cottage in his home country of Finland and hosting a staff tournament each year in Traverse City around the prospect tournament, which he’s run yearly since 2018.
“So to it and ever since, I’ve been playing pickleball regularly,” he said. “We have a great group of guys, about 30 guys, in this text chain. It’s very competitive. There are some old professional athletes in that group – Kent Mercker, an old Major League Baseball pitcher, for example – and Freddy Modin.”
“It’s competitive, but it’s fun and it’s an ever-challenging game where you can get better on so many different levels,” says Kekalainen. “That’s what makes it so intriguing for me that it sort of never ends where you can improve your game in so many different areas.”
While the passion for the game is certainly out in the open, one thing that Kekalainen is keeping close to the vest is his win record.
“Depends on the day, there’s some good players in our group,” says Kekalainen. “It’s a good day when you win, and it gets me mad when I play badly and end up on the wrong side of it.”