Plenty of lessons in year one for John Chayka, youngest GM in sports history

Youngest GM in sports history learns on the job

While taking in a Panthers game on break from the NHL general managers in Florida earlier this month, the youngest GM in pro sports history picked the brain of one of hockey’s greatest players and savviest managers.

John Chayka wanted to know how Steve Yzerman went about constructing Team Canada’s Olympic and world championship teams, and how the process helped him develop as a manager.

“And I don’t know how much it helps me in my situation in Arizona too much…(but) at the same time I think you can always apply logic or learn no matter what the background is,” Chayka said of conversations with the hall of famer and Tampa Bay Lightning GM.

The Arizona Coyotes’ 27-year-old GM has tried to absorb as many lessons as possible in his first year on the job, from building relationships with more experienced colleagues to handling trade talks at the deadline to figuring out how to best to manage time. It’s all new for the Jordan Station, Ont., native, a shocking hire by the Coyotes at age 26 last spring.

The GMs fraternity in the NHL is prototypical of an old boys club, populated by former players, coaches and managers. The average age of the other 30 GMs is 54 with the oldest of the group, 74-year-old Lou Lamoriello, hired into the league in 1987 before Chayka was even born in 1989.

Chayka hints that his age has been “an issue” in his first-year dealings as GM, nothing malicious, he says, “but there is the reality that you are the youngest person in the room.”

Still, he contends that his unique viewpoint serves as a helpful counterbalance in trades with some of his fellow GMs because his wants and needs may differ from competitors. 

“So for me it’s an opportunity as much as a challenge to find fits that work for me, but also work on the other side of things and that’s how transactions are made,” Chayka said. “I think it’s actually been pretty productive, even if it’s not as comfortable as someone who’s known someone for 20 years.”

Chayka didn’t know Wild GM Chuck Fletcher too well until completing a trade last month which satisfied needs for both sides — Arizona scooping up assets for the future, Minnesota adding Martin Hanzal for a potential Stanley Cup run.

Chayka is trying to build relationships as organically as possible with his peers. It’s why getting to know Yzerman is helpful not just for the inside scoop of how Olympic champions were built in 2010 and 2014 (along with the 2007 worlds), but for getting to know someone he’s likely to do business with at some point.

Handling trades, Chayka says, will be a learning process that never stops — even five, 10 years down the road — and he raised some eyebrows by hanging on to Radim Vrbata at the deadline when demands for the 35-year-old winger weren’t met.

Chayka prefers to lead by encouraging a range of opinions and analysis before coming to final conclusions, a style that traces back to his experience with Stathletes, the analytics company he co-founded before joining the Coyotes as assistant general manager in 2015.  

Year one in the GM’s job has also been about determining how to optimally manage time in a role that covers many fronts, from player nutrition to amateur and pro scouting to handling coaching staffs in the NHL and American Hockey League. Is his Tuesday night best spent watching a potential first round pick in a junior hockey league game, flying down to Tucson for a Roadrunners game or attending a Coyotes game in person?

It’s all about constructing a repertoire that suits him best.

With two first-round picks, Chayka’s primary focus at the moment is the upcoming draft. But he also must keep on top of managing the Coyotes, meeting with Shane Doan and veteran leaders about the direction of the franchise amid relocation concerns while remaining in close contact with head coach and executive vice-president of hockey operations Dave Tippett.

Chayka was maybe the busiest GM in hockey during his couple months on the job, penning a number of deals for free agents inside and outside of the organization — including Vrbata and Doan — while also buying out veteran centre Antoine Vermette. The Coyotes were looking in the short-term to bolster their defence by trading for and then signing now 31-year-old defenceman Alex Goligoski.

The early yields haven’t been great for Arizona, a youthful team ahead of only the lowly Colorado Avalanche in the standings this season.

“And I think maybe the real lesson is sometimes it’s hard to do the right thing,” Chayka said of his first year on the job. “It’s hard to trade away Marty Hanzal or it’s hard to stick with Christian Dvorak or Jakob Chychrun (as they develop), but they’re the right things for a reason. And typically teams that have done things over large sample size it pays off.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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