SBJ/January 9-15, 2017/Marketing and Sponsorship

In Phoenix, the youth movement starts in the GM’s office

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At 27, Arizona Coyotes General Manager John Chayka is younger than nine players on his own roster. Some of the NHL’s most senior GMs, like Toronto’s Lou Lamoriello or Nashville’s David Poile, are roughly 2 1/2 times Chayka’s age. But don’t tell him that youth is an impediment when you’re the league’s youngest general manager.

“GMs like Lou Lamoriello and David Poile, sometimes we’re all still trying to figure each other out,” Chayka said with a chuckle, sitting a level above the ice before a recent Coyotes practice, “but it’s still like we share a common bond.”

The NHL’s second-youngest GM is a decade older than Chayka. Still, Chayka maintains that youth counters experience.

“Age is not a weakness for me — I think it’s a help,” said Chayka, who was promoted from assistant GM to GM last April after the Coyotes axed Don Maloney, their GM for nine years. “I’m certainly not biased or jaded by any type of experience. I’m still asking ‘why’ about a lot of things we do, sometimes to the point where people wonder if I have a real answer myself.”

Arizona Coyotes General Manager John Chayka, 27, is younger than nine players on the Coyotes’ roster.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES (2)
When Coyotes ownership was making the decision to fire Maloney last year, team execs looked at some of the usual suspects as candidates. The name of Chayka, who earned his B.A. in business administration from the University of Western Ontario in 2014, kept coming to the top of the list.

“Initially, we had the expected reservations about hiring someone of his vintage,” said Gary Drummond, a minority owner of the Coyotes, who became the team’s president
of hockey operations about a month after Chayka was hired. “He checked every box except experience, which is not a small one, but eventually we decided that not hiring John would impede our growth. And we were convinced that other career opportunities were going to come to a person of his ability. So at the end of day, it was a pretty easy decision.

“Since then, there hasn’t been any material thing he’s done or said that made me question and think that if he had more experience, he would have done it another way.”

Along with Drummond’s new role, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett took the additional role of executive vice president of hockey operations, the day after Chayka was named GM.

An Ontario native, Chayka was a top scorer for a New Brunswick team in Tier II Junior A, and seemed headed for an NCAA hockey scholarship at a minimum before a back injury ended that dream.

With a hockey playing career no longer viable, Chayka turned to hockey camp, training and video analysis for hockey prospects. Instead of simply compiling and assessing video clips, Chayka quickly understood the real value was in the data provided by the video. He could quantify where players most often touched the puck, what they did and how they did in specific situations and against specific matchups. Once his analytics revealed what players should work on and where they weren’t scoring from, “then we began to get some real buy-in,” he said.

The customers for Stathletes, founded by Chayka and partner Neil Lane in 2010, quickly changed from NHL prospects to NHL teams, and talent evaluation was added to the company’s mix. As it grew, a dozen NHL teams were customers, and Stathletes was bringing in outside investors, but Chayka wanted to put his reams of analytics to work.

“As the business got more complex, I just felt that if there was an opportunity to put this stuff into action in a practical way, that’s what I wanted,” he said.

Chayka joined the Coyotes before the 2015-16 season as assistant GM for analytics, when he was 26.

Analytics are a buzzword pervading nearly every business, but neither Drummond nor Chayka see it as a panacea. “We’re dealing with human beings,” Chayka said. “How a coach deals with the human side of things is as huge as anything else.”

Drummond insists that Chayka should not be pigeonholed as an analytics geek. “John has an exceptional mind for analytics,” he said, “but they are just one tool.

“Another thing that comes naturally to him is relating to the young people on our roster. I’m 60, so it doesn’t matter how much respect I get from an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old; they are going to relate to John Chayka a whole lot better than to their grandpa,” Drummond said with a laugh. “In that area, among others, he has quite an advantage.”

At press time, the Coyotes had the fewest victories and one of the worst records in the NHL. So, as is often the case, patience with youth will be paramount.

“It still feels a bit like a startup, because we’re going through the hardest part now,” Chayka said. “But if we do it right and can find value where others don’t — well, that’s the whole point of a business, isn’t it?”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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