Kathryn Lahaie’s days got tough fast during her first year at the University of Western Ontario. Four times a week, her morning began with an 8 a.m. calculus class that was enough to make even the most eager student want to run home to the refuge of a still-warm bed. John Chayka, however, was never a candidate to bolt. When Kathryn met John, the fact he was tall and fit with dark hair took a backseat to more practical considerations. “My initial impression was that he was going to help me get through the class, because it wasn’t going very well,” she says with a laugh. Things improved for Kathryn when she became part of a four-person study group that included Chayka. Every Monday, the crew would meet at the library to finish an assignment that was due the next morning.
Eventually, Kathryn started spending precious leisure time with Chayka, too, and a romance blossomed. He was a touch older than her because he’d been busy playing junior hockey until a back injury caused a change of plans. When a scholarship offer from Cornell University was no longer a viable option, Chayka shifted his focus to Western’s acclaimed business program. Even without the additional years to mature, though, it was clear to Kathryn that Chayka — much like herself — in no way matched the stereotype of a fun-seeking university student. He had grander intentions. “I remember him telling me, when we were dating, ‘I’m going to be the general manager of a hockey team,’” she says.
Kathryn Lahaie is now Kathryn Chayka, and the man she married made good on his promise, becoming the youngest GM in the history of major North American sports when he assumed that post with the Arizona Coyotes in May 2016, just shy of his 27th birthday. Chayka’s incredible rise will always be tied to obsessive data collecting and crunching, but his story is equally about an entrepreneurial spirit that goes all the way back to his teenage years. Getting the game to truly work in Arizona has proven to be one of the harder asks in hockey, and Chayka — now the person responsible for finding solutions — has never claimed to have all the answers. But his belief they can be found through the right kind of relentless searching both defines Chayka and stokes his fire.
The high-stakes game going on to Chayka’s left is still scoreless entering the third period. Moments ago, the GM was wearing a team-branded parka in the stands of the Gila River Arena while watching guys he hopes are the future of the franchise, like Dylan Strome and Clayton Keller, take part in the last day of rookie camp in mid-September. Now in his office, Chayka slips into a blue sports coat as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators — on the TV screen beside him — go at each other in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The NHL Network has been running a series of Cup-clinching games and Chayka has kept them on in the background. In the off-season, he hired one of the participants in the most recent showdown — former Pittsburgh assistant Rick Tocchet — to be the new head coach of the Coyotes. “They’re the fastest teams, but they’re not just all speed skaters out there,” he says of the Preds and Pens. “It’s speed of mind and decision-making process that separates these teams.”
Chayka has always moved at a quick pace himself. He learned to skate on a backyard rink built by his dad, Terry, a former Jr. B player. Like older sisters Meghan and Laura, he grew up in Jordan, Ont. — about a 15-minute drive from St. Catharines — playing a number of sports. Hockey, though, became a more singular focus as the years went on and he found himself on AAA teams, including a couple during his bantam and midget years that were coached by former Buffalo Sabres bench boss Ted Nolan and featured Nolan’s son, future L.A. King Jordan Nolan. Chayka, drafted 283rd overall by the Plymouth Whalers in the 2005 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection, was a smart, six-foot-three player with a good shot. And even then, he always provided his body with the right fuel. “He’s the type of person who grows his own sprouts in the kitchen,” says Meghan.
All that care, though, still couldn’t help Chayka avoid a back problem he believed would hamper him for life if he didn’t stop playing competitive hockey. After stops with five Jr. A and B teams in Ontario, New Brunswick and B.C. between 2006 and 2010, Chayka made a pivot toward school and some other hockey-related activities. He’d been analyzing video of his own play and his teams’ throughout his junior career, with Meghan and her partner, Neil Lane, often shooting games to be picked apart by Chayka and Co. “It was a passion thing, it wasn’t work, it wasn’t something that was forced,” says Chayka. “[I just thought], I watch NHL games all the time; it’d be cool if I could watch my own games the same way and try to understand what makes me good or what I could do better.”
With increasingly concrete beliefs about what skills to emphasize, and a deep base of nutrition and training knowledge, Chayka established the National Hockey Institute while he was still an active player. The idea, supported by his dad and Andy O’Brien — before the latter became one of hockey’s highest-profile trainers — was to create a one-stop shop for young players looking to push past vague instructions like “get bigger and stronger.”
“You hear a lot about ‘work ethic’ or ‘compete,’” Chayka says. “I always thought it’d be great if you could actually dig into this and try to understand, in objective terms, what it means and if it’s even important. There were some people who I felt were valuing things that were irrelevant, and some who weren’t valuing things that were actually really important.”
When Chayka stopped playing hockey to attend Western, Lane was there doing his MBA and the two lived together for a couple years. Along with Meghan — who holds a degree in finance and economics — the two eventually founded Stathletes, a company that aimed to dissect the game on the most granular levels. This wasn’t about scraping existing websites for information and re-packaging it; this was watching more video than a film school student, creating databases and vetting findings. Some of the earliest funding for Stathletes came via money the trio earned at various business school competitions around North America. “John already was persuasive at that age,” says Meghan. “He was very focused, very calm. He doesn’t overstep. He knows what he knows, and if he’s not sure, he’ll find the answer or find people who can support [finding the answer].”
Bit by bit, the Stathletes team discovered a market for its info. Pitching big-league agents and clubs on the company’s services also allowed Chayka to start making some high-level connections. To celebrate one of their first major pieces of business with an NHL client, the group decided everybody was going to watch the health-conscious Chayka eat a chicken wing. “It never happened,” Meghan recalls with a chuckle. “It was enough that he just said he would. We were like, ‘You don’t have to. Here’s a carrot.’”
About once a month, Chayka has dinner with some of the brightest sports minds in the Valley of the Sun. The supper club includes Ryan McDonough, GM of the Phoenix Suns; Mike Disner, director of football operations for the Arizona Cardinals; and a pair of guys from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ front office, general manager Mike Hazen and assistant GM Jared Porter. They discuss everything from maximizing sleep to in-flight nutrition to how to best make players’ families comfortable and happy. “We’re after information; we’re after competitive advantages,” says Chayka.
Whether sitting down with fellow executives or asking a junior member of the management staff for his or her thoughts, communication is central to Chayka’s job. Not long after he became GM — he was originally hired by Arizona as assistant GM, analytics in 2015 — he got together with defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to ask the Coyotes’ most important player who his ideal blue-line partner would be. Ekman-Larsson said fellow Swede Nik Hjalmarsson was a perfect fit. After some serious digging, Chayka came to the same conclusion and — one year later — pulled the trigger on a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire the three-time Cup winner. “I needed to find a way to get him to take that next step to be that elite guy,” Chayka says of Ekman-Larsson. “Look what [Erik] Karlsson did for Ottawa.”
After Arizona missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season last spring, Chayka took Ekman-Larsson out to tell him change was coming. Indeed, the Coyotes parted ways with long-time head coach Dave Tippett, informed captain and franchise-face Shane Doan he would not be offered another contract by the team and traded veteran goalie Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames. Over the summer, Chayka dropped in on several players to explain the organizational approach and ensure everybody understood the plan. “We were trying to play everyone else’s game for the longest time and it just doesn’t work,” Chayka says. “We’ve got less resources, we’ve got less manpower. We had to shift our mindset.”
Tippett’s departure was cause for some to re-visit the idea he and Chayka were never truly on the same page. For his part, Chayka believes a fresh start somewhere else — perhaps with a veteran roster — will eventually be a great thing for the widely respected Tippett after years of answering questions about ownership flux and potential arena deals. “Dave Tippett and I had a lot of innovative, in-depth conversations on player evaluation [and] how the game should be played,” Chayka says. “He had his own data he was collecting [with his] coaching staff, I had some things I’d bring to the table and we’d have a lot of intellectual debates. There was no old school/new school divide.”
Chayka says he has complete autonomy to build the Coyotes — owned solely by Andrew Barroway for about three months now — as he sees fit, but also notes the organization looks for alignment on major moves. That was the case with Doan, who Chayka acknowledges was more like a folk hero to fans in the desert. Moving on from Doan may have been a tough choice, but as Chayka says, no enterprise ever got to the top by making a series of layups. And while most everything in Arizona is done through an analytical lens, it’s best if reason leaves the room here and there. “Sometimes logic isn’t your friend,” Chayka says. “A lot of entrepreneurs, they’re not reasonable people at all times. They take huge risks that just really don’t add up. And when it looks like it has no chance of working, you just kind of put your head down and keep working at it. You’ve got a strategy, you’ve got a plan, you believe in it: Dig in and get it done.
“We’re selling hockey in the desert here. It’s almost an oxymoron when you think about it. But it can be done.”
To that end, Chayka acquired centre Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers at the 2017 NHL Draft for the seventh-overall pick and young defenceman Anthony DeAngelo. Chayka believes Stepan is the best centre the Coyotes have had in years and said Raanta was far and away the best goalie available through trade. Hiring Tocchet came down to nabbing a guy coming off back-to-back championships with a team that plays a progressive style. The new Arizona coach doesn’t soft sell anything, and Chayka was an immediate fan of Tocchet’s direct dialogue. “Toc’s world, in terms of winning, is binary,” Chayka says. “We can play games, collect our paychecks, eat pizza — we can play however we feel like playing that night — or, we’re here to win. And that means we’re going to prepare to win. We’re going to eat to win; sleep to win; practice to win. Sometimes it’s not convenient. F— that, it’s not about being convenient. It’s about winning.”
For his part, Tocchet says he was surprised with Chayka’s intimate knowledge of highly specific systems, including a lot of the defensive-zone strategy Tocchet spoke about in his interviews. As for his thoughts on working for a guy who’s still two years shy of his 30th birthday, the 53-year-old says once Chayka was endorsed by O’Brien — who’s been the Penguins’ director of sport science and performance since 2015 — he knew there wouldn’t be any issues. “I don’t think he’s worried about the pressure of this job; he’s embraced it,” Tocchet says. “He’s ready to face it.”
In the extremely rare moments when Chayka wants to unplug, he and Kathryn might take off from their Scottsdale home and kick back for a night in a nearby resort. There, the parts of Chayka’s personality that have nothing to do with uncovering an overlooked crumb of data can take hold. His one-liners are biting, though he’s not likely to cross the boundaries of good taste. “He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” Kathryn says. “And some of our close friends always say he’s the nicest person they know. I think a lot of people don’t see that because he comes across so matter-of-factly. Even when he’s on TV, it’s just like he’s so serious.”
Any brief respite the Chaykas get is well earned for Kathryn, too. Just weeks after John became GM of the Coyotes, their company — Compass Restaurant Group — acquired 12 Wendy’s franchises between Oakville and Fort Erie. At 25, Kathryn is the driving force behind their operation and usually heads back to Ontario for meetings when the Coyotes hit the road. For the most part, they’re both too busy to reflect on how remarkable their lives are. The big picture, however, sometimes comes into focus when Kathryn calls her mom with an update and is met with a mix of pride and wonder. “Moments like that take you back and you’re like, ‘Yeah, it is unbelievable,’” she says.
If ever there was a time to take stock, it was the August day this summer when John and Kathryn got married in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Officially, they got hitched almost a year ago in Arizona because that’s what two Canadians living in another country sometimes have to do. This occasion, though, was about sharing a moment with family and friends. John credits Kathryn for planning the entire thing despite her outrageous schedule. The day went so smoothly Kathryn jokes she’s convinced someone must be holding out, scared to tell her what crisis was narrowly avoided. Don’t count on it.
“I feel like, once you put so much effort into something, it can’t go wrong. Right?” she says.
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