At 26, Ivey alumnus John Chayka may not seem that much older than when he first fell in love with hockey on a backyard ice rink in Jordan Station, Ontario. But earlier this month, he made history as the youngest general manager of a team in the National Hockey League with the Arizona Coyotes.
He’s been described in news articles as a ‘wunderkind’, ‘NHL’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg’, ‘whiz kid’ and more than one publication has suggested his approach could be the 'Moneyball of hockey.' Certainly what sets Chayka apart is a focus on the game’s advanced statistics, which was a fresh approach to the game when he began developing his strategy in 2009.
“It’s a new way of looking at the game, it’s a different way of looking at the game – at the time it wasn’t being explored at all,” Chayka explains. “I think that’s obviously evolved since then, but again a progressive, quantitative approach that differentiated myself from some others who had more experience.”
Chayka found that using a more objective perspective opened the door for conversations with people who were more senior in the game, and found that those discussions were greatly appreciated.
While focusing on the quantitative elements of the sport would be a great asset later in life, Chayka began relating to the sport on a personal level, as his love of the game started from an early age even before he found himself a skilled athlete in the junior leagues.
“My father always built us a rink in my backyard and since I can remember, so I think I was three or four years old [when I first grew to love hockey,]” Chayka recounts. “I was skating back there and obviously watching games on TV all the time. It’s usually a part of Canadians’ blood.”
Chayka’s success in hockey gained momentum in 2005 when he was drafted to the Ontario Hockey League – the Plymouth Whalers made him their 15th round draft pick. From there, he’d play in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League for the Woodstock Slammers from 2007-09, where he ended up third in scoring in 2008-09.
In the 2009-10 season, Chayka shuffled from the British Columbia Hockey League to the Ontario Junior A Hockey League and played with the Cowichan Valley Capitals, the Oakville Blades and the Trenton Golden Hawks.
Then a back injury took him off the ice for good.
“I think it was a combination of overtraining, poor training, a lack of understanding or knowledge on my behalf and just the cumulative effect of those things ended up creating some pretty significant disk damage,” he said.
Though Chayka was frustrated that his dream to be an NHL player had come to an end, he prioritized making a positive out of a negative and used the incident as a springboard into his passion of helping young players avoid his kinds of injuries and maximize their performance.
Even though he was forced walk away from the game and hang up his skates, it didn’t diminish his love for the game. He found the experience to be a natural transition into what he calls “player development”, ultimately driving him to co-found Stathletes.
Founding the business with his sister, Meghan Chayka, and Neil Lane, the organization gathers and tracks advanced statistics of hockey players that, in his view, works to "bridge the cap from the on-ice to the off-ice."
“My role was to try and provide some information and some analysis on those players’ strengths and weaknesses so they could better understand their game and better create a development path to specifically address any deficiencies they might have,” Chayka said.
Stathletes quickly began to grow, and Chayka found himself building a good reputation and solid relationships with people within the NHL that would ultimately become valuable as he moved beyond his organization.
“It reached a point where there was enough talent and support around the business that it was no longer dependant on one of its founders and myself. I actually felt that at times I could potentially be holding the business back because there was a wealth of talent below me that was ready to take their next step as well.”
But it was a combination of the skills he learned through Stathletes and his time at Ivey that would play a big role in Chayka’s career. Graduating in the class of 2014 with an HBA from Ivey, Chayka credits Ivey with instilling a mindset that drove him to strive for excellence and found himself especially inspired by his peers.
“I think the most value in my opinion was just the quality and the calibre of people, whether it’s professors, whether it’s students, to surround yourself with excellent minds that push you to be better, I think that to me was the ultimate value of Ivey.”
Instead of noting any single influence, Chayka offered credit to his program director, Mary Heisz, for being a leader in fostering the culture at Ivey that so inspired him. However, he named his finance and Decision Making with Analytics (DWA) courses as particularly valuable with his work, translating well to his first position with the Arizona Coyotes as their assistant general manager/analytics.
Now about to begin his first season as GM of the Coyotes, Chayka doesn’t consider his age as a defining factor, instead focusing on the skillset he brings to the table for his team’s benefit overall.
“I don’t think really think of it in terms of an age, I think of it in terms of ‘how can we best utilize what I bring to the table and how do we maximize the group’s approach so that we can win games,' " he says.
Chayka will be replacing former Arizona GM Don Maloney
at the same time as head coach Dave Tippett takes on an additional role within the Coyotes’ front office as the executive vice-president of Hockey Operations. Tippett who has been with the team since 2009, was quick to voice his support for Chayka as more than just a young number-cruncher.
“John [Chayka] gets painted, because of his age and because of the company he started, with a very analytical brush,” Tippett said in an email statement. “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."
Heading into the off-season, Chayka has his work set out for him in reforming a team that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, but it’s clear that his team’s confidence in hiring him has driven him forward.
“It’s humbling – it’s something that you’re very grateful for. You have a vision of what you think you can do and what you think an organization should be about in order to win and to have a buy-in of some people who are very successful ... it’s a pretty special experience."
While Chayka admits he's more forward-thinking than reflective, it's clear that he credits his experiences for his move to Arizona.
"You think of all of the things you’ve been through and you’re happy that you get a chance to do something that you really love to do.”
With files from Nathan Kanter.