GLENDALE, Ariz. — John Chayka describes his dad, Terry, as a serial entrepreneur. Naturally, when John devised a business plan for quantifying hockey, Terry was the first person he approached.
“He took a look at it and basically said ‘no chance,'” John said, laughing.
Terry Chayka insists he just needed a more thorough analysis.
“I guess I’m old school,” he said. “I thought that quantifying this dynamic game was odd but when he sat down with me and started showing me the product he built and the process behind it, it really made sense.”
When the Coyotes named John Chayka their new general manager at a press conference on Thursday at Gila River Arena, much of the hockey world reacted with the same skepticism Terry Chayka expressed all those years ago.
“Interesting moves to say the least,” one longtime NHL executive said.
At 26, Chayka is the youngest GM in NHL history. He has just one year of NHL managerial experience and he is taking over a team that has missed the playoffs four straight years. An early and common narrative portrays Chayka as a math nerd — a whiz kid with a narrow skill set who is just here to crunch numbers and do coach Dave Tippett’s bidding.
“I guess what bugs me more than being deemed as just an analytics guy is this misunderstanding of analytics in general,” Chayka said. “When people say they don’t like analytics, to me that says they don’t like process-based decision-making.
“I can give you an analysis of a player by telling you ‘this guy makes a good first pass’ or ‘this guy keeps a really good gap’ and that is traditional scouting, but I could give you that same report and have it all be analytics based to give you another way of understanding it.”
Chayka doesn’t shy away from his belief in the value of analytics. He dedicated the early years of his adult life to founding Stathletes, a video-based hockey analytics company with his brother-in-law, Neil Lane that has grown to 55 employees.
“I’m a pretty obsessive personality so it’s not like I have a lot of hobbies,” he said. “I worked on my game and went as far as I could in juniors, and school was easy for me; I was always at the top of my class and always willing to put the work in every day.”
Terry Chayka remembers a game where John may have been overthinking the game and his coach was riding him hard, telling him ‘you have to want it, you have to want it.’
“John turns to him, looks him right in the eye and says, ‘trust me, I want it,'” Terry said, laughing.
The Coyotes are convinced Chayka’s work ethic and painstakingly thorough analysis will serve him well in his new post, but those who have worked with him have a fuller understanding of what Chayka brings to the table.
“John gets painted, because of his age and because of the company he started, with a very analytical brush,” Tippett said. “What people are going to find out about John is that he’s a very smart guy; a very intelligent guy. That intelligence leads him to having a balance. Where there’s an analytical approach there’s a common sense approach.”
What they will also find out, Lane said, is that Chayka already has a bevy of relationships with NHL owners, executives and coaching staffs from his work at Stathletes — a relationship that goes beyond simple client contact.
“I remember going into second meetings with NHL teams where we would meet with multiple people and he would remember all these details like their kids’ names, what sports they played, how old they were,” said Lane, the CEO of Stathletes. “This was when he was 20, 21 years old. He is an exceptional man in many ways and building relationships is not the least of them.”
Coyotes co-owner and president of hockey operations Gary Drummond first met Chayka at the Memorial Cup three years ago in Saskatoon over dinner with a mutual friend.
“I was tremendously impressed with his maturity, his vision, his desire to be part of a winning organization and his business astuteness,” said Drummond after Chayka educated him on the intricacies of player development, sports science and analytics. “It was a real eye-opener for me, and I realized how little I really knew about hockey at this level.”
Chayka doesn’t duck the fact that he lacks experience at the NHL level, but the Coyotes’ emphasis on collaborative management makes him confident that his ideas will be valued, and confident that he will have the support and perspectives around him for the entire group to succeed.
“People make it sound like I’m going to hand out spreadsheets to everyone but for me, to be successful, whether it’s (equipment manager) Stan Wilson, (athletic trainer) Jason Serbus, the coaching staff or the players, I value the relationships we have very highly,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the key for me is the best idea wins, whether that comes from our most junior staff or whether that comes from our coaching staff or medical staff. When you talk about those different departments they are not segmented. It’s one whole and that’s the approach we are taking.”