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Like many hockey-obsessed 26 year olds, John Chayka would occasionally fire up his gaming system and play a little EA Sports NHL. Those games included a “Be A GM” Mode, in which you manage a team under the salary cap, make trades and even help facilitate locker room chemistry.
Unlike many hockey-obsessed 26 year olds, John Chayka now has a chance to do all of this in the actual NHL, rather than the pixelated one.
“I can certainly tell you from my experience here and around the league that, in general, it’s a much different approach to making a trade [than in a video game],” he said on Thursday, hours after being announced as the Arizona Coyotes new general manager.
Chayka becomes the youngest GM in NHL history, surpassing Gord Stellick, who was 30 when he was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1988. He replaces Don Maloney, who was fired after nine years at the helm. He joined the team last season as an assistant general manager with a focus on analytics, involved in all areas of hockey operations and player development.
Previously, he co-founded Stathletes, Inc., a hockey data-tracking firm that used video analysis. A native of Jordan Station, Ontario, Chayka’s hockey playing career was limited to Junior ‘A’ in the Maritimes.
So the Coyotes hired a 26-year-old analytics nerd as their general manager.
That sound you just heard was the old boys club’s heads exploding.
Then again, Chayka’s job is to work with one of the “old boys” to lead this franchise to success: Head coach Dave Tippett, who has coached 1,032 games in the NHL after playing in 721 games.
His rookie season was 1983, or roughly six years before his new boss was born.
“John gets painted, because of his age and because of the company he started, with a very analytical brush. What people are going to find out about John is that he’s a very smart guy. A very intelligent guy. But that intelligence leads him to having a balance, where there’s an analytical approach but there’s a common sense approach,” said Tippett.
The veteran coach doesn’t shy away from analytics. In fact, he laughs at the notion that they’re something revolutionary and new: Tippett said he was tracking similar data as an assistant coach with the Houston Aeros back in the mid-1990s as a player/assistant coach.
So he’s down with the gospel of Chayka, much like he’s down with Chayka as the new general manager.
“We all get to meet a lot of people in the world, but there are some that just strike you and you say ‘hey, that guy is special.’ Over the last year, I’ve seen those things in John that [make you say] this guy’s going to be a difference-maker,” said Tippett.
“If you have a difference-maker on your team, it makes everybody better.”
That said, this is very much Tippett’s team.
Chayka said the buck stops with him, but the reality is that this is total collaboration between the GM, the coach and ownership.
Tippett was not only handed a five-year contract extension, but a promotion to executive vice president of hockey operations. This isn’t unprecedented – Patrick Roy has a player personnel role with the Colorado Avalanche and people like Darryl Sutter and Bryan Murray have been dual coach/GMs in the past. But it’s the first time in recent memory that a team has cleared out its general manager and then not only kept the head coach but gave him a contract extension and a promotion.
“We’re going to pursue players that optimize the group and bring specific attributes to this team that will fit within Tipp’s blueprint for success and structure,” said Chayka during his press conference.
That blueprint has resulted in four straight seasons outside of the playoffs, which followed three straight seasons in which Tippett led the Coyotes there. He was hired in 2009.
We asked Chayka if Coyotes Hockey was synonymous with Dave Tippett Hockey.
“I think Coyotes hockey is winning hockey. And Dave Tippett has a history of winning and has been very success,” he said.
“My point is that it’s not about collecting good players. It’s about collecting players that fit our system, that fit our blueprint. Dave Tippett’s going to be a big part of that blueprint. We’re in the process of defining that criteria and narrowing our scope.”
Under this structure, Chayka and Tippett will combine their analytical and hockey knowledge on decisions, and then take that collaboration up to Gary Drummond, the team’s alternate governor who will now formally serve as President of Hockey Operations.
Drummond was an investor and Board member on several private and public companies including Baytex Energy Corp., Crew Energy Inc., Comaplex Minerals Corp. and presently Bonterra Energy Corp. and Pincliff Energy Ltd. He’s a member of the IceArizona ownership group.
Said the Coyotes: “Drummond’s main role will be to ensure communication and collaboration within the department and serve as a catalyst for ensuring an alignment of vision and objectives between ownership, management, coaches and the team’s core players.”
Translation: Make sure that the hockey operations side is working with ownership and the coach, unlike what happened under Maloney.
The model of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals was mentioned frequently on Thursday. Michael Bidwill is the team’s president (and son of the owner). Coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim work in concert with him.
“Collaboration, communication and the modernization of processes” was the oft-spoken mantra at the Coyotes’ presser.
Which is to say that, perhaps, that wasn’t there in the previous regime, if one is to read into the words of Tippett.
“[There will be] collaboration between the whole management group. I think a lot of the times the management collaborates and they go to the coach, and now the coach will be involved” in the initial discussions, he said.
The MVP here is Tippett. He obviously has been entrusted by ownership to be the steward of the franchise, and one imagines that the Coyotes don’t promote Chayka if Tippett doesn’t sign off on it.
That he did is inspiring, because it shows a willingness from the old school to accept and worth with the new school. It’s like when Kyle Dubas was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as their analytics whiz kid, and then was accepted when Lou Lamoriello arrived as the new general manager.
Dubas, for what it’s worth, doesn’t believe he personally is ready to be a GM at 29 years old. “I have a lot to learn,” he said last month. “Frankly speaking, what I’ve learned is that I have a lot to learn to get to that level [as a GM].”
Like Dubas, John Chayka is south of 30 years old. Unlike Dubas, John Chayka never toiled in the front offices of junior hockey for years.
John Chayka isn’t an ex-player trading on his name recognition for a post-career job, nor is John Chayka some old retread bouncing to yet another front office gig.
He doesn’t fit the mold.
Imagine what the NHL would look like if other teams had the boldness to break their own paradigms and hire outside the same pedigrees and demographics.
That alone is a reason to root for the Coyotes' success.
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