David Simpson opened the newspaper last week and read that John Chayka had become the youngest general manager in NHL history.
“Huh,” Simpson said to his wife, “I know this guy.”
No, she responded in disbelief.
“Yeah,” said Simpson, the former New York Islanders draft pick, “he was just in my class.”
Chayka, the Arizona Coyotes new 26-year-old GM, is only two years removed from graduation at Western University where Simpson works as a professor at the Ivey business school.
Hockey has yet to fully embrace youth in the management ranks. The average age of today’s GM is 53. That’s 27 years older than Chayka, who was born in 1989. Other sports, primarily baseball, have embraced young thinkers and their analytical minds in senior roles, but not hockey, not yet at least.
Chayka could become the trendsetter in the movement.
“From my perspective, if we do this and we’re successful I hope nobody else does it because I’m not looking to help other teams be successful,” said Anthony LeBlanc, the Canadian president and co-owner of the Coyotes.
“Everybody who has spent even a tertiary amount of time with John, they don’t walk away opining about his age. They walk away going ‘That is one incredibly intelligent young man’,” added LeBlanc. “He understands the game at a level that people twice his age probably don’t.”
The Coyotes altered their management structure by ousting Don Maloney, installing Chayka as GM and minority owner Gary Drummond as president of hockey operations. They also added a management title to head coach Dave Tippett and plan to hire an “very seasoned” assistant GM.
Chayka becomes by far the youngest GM in the sport. Nineteen of the NHL’s 30 GMs are aged 50 and older, a significant contrast from baseball where all but six are under 50. Nine, in fact, are aged 40 or younger.
Baseball’s shift in that direction began in 2002 when the Boston Red Sox hired 28-year-old Theo Epstein as GM. Epstein led the club to two World Series titles, including its first in 86 years.
His success opened the floodgates toward youth in front office roles, growing especially pronounced in recent years, including last fall when the Milwaukee Brewers hired 30-year-old David Stearns.
Coyotes ownership has connections to Epstein and considered his success when hiring Chayka.
Chayka was armed with ideas for improving the Coyotes, according to LeBlanc, not just potential upgrades in analytics, but scouting, nutrition, sports science, even sleeping habits. He wasn’t just a number guy, Arizona’s president said.
“We just really liked his approach,” said LeBlanc, Quebec-born and Ontario-raised. “We thought it was a new way of thinking.”
Coming from a business background and not rooted in hockey’s traditions, LeBlanc and his partners weren’t afraid to think unconventionally in selecting Chayka.
Whether his hiring starts a trend in the NHL likely depends on his success. Teams across the league will be watching to see how he acquits himself with the Coyotes because Chayka is not only young, but inexperienced in the arena of running of a team.
Unlike Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs 29-year-old assistant GM, Chayka never managed a junior hockey team, serving with the Coyotes as assistant GM for one season after co-founding a hockey analytics company as a teenager.
How will he perform in an unfamiliar role? Will his inexperience hinder him in dealings with opposing GMs and agents? Can he head off Tippett when emotions run high? Will the Coyotes unique management structure, headed by Drummond, a minority owner with no experience in hockey, prove beneficial or hindersome?
Simpson thinks he’ll do just fine.
He said the role of GM has changed since the days when he and his brother Craig, the broadcaster and longtime Edmonton Oiler, were players.
Management groups are larger today, stocked with members who fill very specific duties, including analytics and the salary cap, that either didn’t exist previously or would have been handled by the GM alone.
“As soon as the level of complexity and dollars and cents goes up then the word ‘general manager’ is almost a misnomer because it’s one of the functions of a very big team,” said Simpson, who consulted Chayka in the early days of Stathletes, a hockey analytics company he co-founded.
Like most of the young GMs in baseball, Chayka brings a numbers background to the role, one that could improve the manner in which decisions are made. As Simpson said, “a little grey hair or no hair helps some of these situations” but “the grey hair and the no hair sometimes need the young guys” perspective in rationalizing big-money decisions with numbers that either confirm or deny assumptions.
Chayka has the reputation of a collaborator, someone comfortable seeking out and implementing the ideas of others as Stathletes did in building relationships with various NHL teams. His youth also offers him an unique understanding of today’s player, one his predecessors may lack.
“We knew that his age would be a headline number,” LeBlanc said, “but it really didn’t bother us.”