John Davidson left the Columbus Blue Jackets two years ago for his dream job running the New York Rangers after playing for them decades ago.
When that dream came to an abrupt end, there was no other place the respected hockey executive would rather be than back in Columbus.
Davidson was reintroduced Thursday as the Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations, bringing the 68-year-old back to the organization he steered into respectability in the NHL from 2012-19. His return on a five-year contract coincided with the team signing general manager Jarmo Kekalainen to an extension through 2025, reuniting a management group that produced four playoff appearances in six seasons.
“Really, really, really happy to be back,” Davidson said. “We’re going to put together a coaching staff. We’re going to have lots of energy. We’re going to forward with big smiles on our faces, and we’re going to get back to doing some winning. That’s what it’s all about.”
Davidson spent less than two full years as president in New York before he and general manager Jeff Gorton were fired earlier this month with three games left in the regular season. Davidson took the high road about his dealings with Rangers owner James Dolan, who grew impatient with the rebuilding process.
” All I can say is, changes were made,” Davidson said, adding it was a disappointing development. “I had a talk with Mr. Dolan, who is the owner and the boss at Madison Square Garden. It was a very respectful conversation, and we decided to just part ways. When that happens, it’s a blow because nobody gets used to something like that.”
Davidson is very used to Columbus and said after two years derailed by the pandemic it felt like he’d never left. Kekalainen is still there and some core players, but a lot has changed since the spring of 2019 when Davidson left for what he thought was the opportunity of a lifetime working for the team he played for as a goaltender decades ago.
The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs and finished last in the eight-team Central Division. Kekalainen traded longtime captain Nick Foligno, top-four defenseman David Savard and bottom-six linchpin Riley Nash. Coach John Tortorella left when his contract came to an end.
It’s a daunting offseason now that starts with a coaching search and could include decisions on the future of top defenseman Seth Jones and Patrik Laine, a trade acquisition who has underperformed.
“We’ll have to weed through these things one at a time and try to make the strongest and best decisions on behalf of the Blue Jackets that you can make,” said Davidson, who had the option of returning to broadcasting or retiring. “If you didn’t want tough decisions, you’re in the wrong business.”
Finding the right coach to get the Blue Jackets back to the playoffs is the first order of business. Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant, Claude Julien and Rick Tocchet are among the candidates with extensive NHL head-coaching experience, and then there’s David Quinn, who was fired by the Rangers not long after Davidson and Gorton.
“We’d be negligent if we didn’t include everybody out there who is a possible head coach,” Davidson said. “David Quinn is a good person. He did a great job in New York. Certainly he’ll be on the list with a lot of others.”
The list for Davidson’s job was one name long. Kekalainen had shouldered the load since Davidson’s departure, but the organization reclaims a certain gravitas with him back in the fold.
“Happy to have J.D. back and the original gang together again,” Kekalainen said. “We both have a passion for hockey. We talk the game all day. I’ve said it many times, my job doesn’t even feel like a job, it’s more of a lifestyle. Live hockey, breathe hockey.”
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