According to multiple sources, Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo will ask NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to adjudicate the ugly divorce between the organization and John Chayka, thereby determining the executive’s future.
“This is a contractual dispute,” one source said Sunday afternoon.
After several days of silence, the Coyotes came out firing at their former president of hockey operations and general manager.
“John Chayka has quit as the general manager and president of hockey operations,” a statement released by the team read. “The club is disappointed in his actions and his timing as the Coyotes prepare to enter the NHL’s hub city of Edmonton, where the team will begin post-season play for the first time since 2012. Chayka has chosen to quit on a strong and competitive team, a dedicated staff, and the Arizona Coyotes fans, the greatest fans in the NHL.”
Steve Sullivan is in the pilot’s seat — at least through the remainder of the Coyotes’ season.
Chayka released a statement to azcoyotesinsider.com and The Arizona Republic saying: “The past four years have been the most enjoyable of my life. In Arizona, I became a husband and a father, while working as hard as possible to make the Coyotes a Stanley Cup contender. I love our players, coaches, staff and fans and I very much wish I could be with the team in Edmonton. Sadly, the situation created by ownership made that an impossibility.”
“That’s all I intend to say on this matter for now. A fuller, more detailed explanation may be necessary in the near future. Until then, I wish the Coyotes good luck in Edmonton, and thank every member of Our Pack for the support shown to Kathryn, our daughter and myself over the years. Also, I want to congratulate Steve Sullivan as he steps into a new role. We’ve worked side-by-side for years. He is a great person and a terrific hockey mind.”
Here’s what I can best piece together:
Approximately one month ago, Meruelo received a request from another NHL owner to speak to Chayka. Initially, the request was denied. (There’s been a lot of speculation about the Buffalo Sabres, but I’m also hearing rumblings about New Jersey, although the Devils have hired Tom Fitzgerald. Word is Chayka will take time away before making any further comment or commitment.) Understand that Meruelo — up until this saga unfolded — was an enormous Chayka fan. He believed in the GM’s vision, extending him through the 2023-24 season, making the Coyotes a cap team.
Eventually, Meruelo relented and allowed the conversation. This will be a critical part of the process. He will argue that he was lied to about what was to be discussed and that Chayka said he had no intention of leaving. What, if anything, is in writing?
From what I understand, a Godfather-esque “offer he couldn’t refuse” was made. Some sources indicated that it was not a lateral move, bigger than the current job Chayka was doing. It is believed that this involves an ownership group with teams in other leagues and Chayka could have involvement in those other teams.
The Coyotes were stunned and enormously disappointed. However — and this will be another key part of the dispute — they made it very clear the titles “general manager” and/or “president of hockey operations” could not be involved, to prove that Chayka was not making a lateral move. They are prepared to argue that is written into Chayka’s contract.
That was just one of the issues that doomed any type of settlement. There are also accusations that compensation was demanded. (The NHL does not allow it after a brief attempt a few seasons ago turned into a fiasco, but because this might involve some non-hockey work — it became a bit of a grey area.)
The relationship between Chayka and ownership deteriorated in a hurry. Chayka did not attend a dinner meeting last week involving ownership and unrestricted free-agent Taylor Hall. There have been reports Chayka was excluded. There have been reports he set it up. Both have been hotly contested by sources loyal to each side. But there’s no question he’d done a lot of groundwork in Arizona’s efforts to re-sign the talented forward, and the Coyotes were using that information in conversations with Hall.
Chayka has not been part of recent conversations with agents. Sullivan represented the Coyotes on two GM calls this past week. As recently as Thursday, Meruelo and president/CEO Xavier Gutierrez wanted Chayka with the team in the Edmonton bubble. Chayka was prepared to go, as long as there was a “transition plan” that clearly outlined how things would progress. Ownership wanted to focus on the playoffs, with any conversations about the future to wait.
They couldn’t reach an agreement, and on Friday Chayka terminated his contract with the team — unheard of on the eve of the playoffs. Twice, former New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello fired his coach shortly before the post-season (Larry Robinson won a Stanley Cup in place of Robbie Ftorek in 2000), but an executive move is even more abnormal.
Meruelo’s fury was illustrated in the team’s statement. It’s a tough one for the team’s fans, who were hoping for some stability under Chayka’s long-term extension and were looking forward to meaningful games against the Nashville Predators. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t predict where this is going. But the Coyotes are enraged, wanting to make sure their rights are protected.
It’s going to come down to what’s on paper. And the commissioner.