GLENDALE, Ariz. — John Chayka is sure veteran Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello doesn’t know what to make of him.
“He’s still trying to figure me out,” the Arizona Coyotes GM said with a laugh.
It’s understandable if Lamoriello needs time to get a read on Chayka because Lamoriello was a general manager in the NHL two years before Chayka was born. At 73, Lamoriello is 46 years older than Chayka.
Chayka, 27, is the youngest general manager in major pro sports history. He was 26 when he was promoted from assistant GM in May. He is 13 years younger than team captain Shane Doan and at least 16 years younger than every other NHL general manager.
“I have a daughter older than him,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett says. “But I can tell you that when you sit down with him for an hour or so, you walk away saying, ‘OK, I get it now.’ ”
Last spring, the Coyotes fired Don Maloney after missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc said the team considered other experienced candidates for the job but chose Chayka after team officials were blown away by his interview.
The Coyotes were seeking someone with a plan to improve their communication, collaboration and modernization; he addressed that and much more. He had thoughts on nutrition, sports science and training methods.
“He talked about everything right down to the impact sleep has on an athlete’s life,” LeBlanc said.
Chayka ascended to the general manager’s seat 11 months after being named assistant general manager and five years after he partnered with his sister, Meghan, and a friend, Neil Lane, to form a Canadian company called Stathletes Inc., which uses advanced statistical analysis to evaluate player performances and develop plans to improve their performance levels.
When Lane first met a 16-year-old Chayka, “it was pretty clear that he was headed for great things.”
“I was in university when he was in high school,” Lane said. “He would pick up my textbooks and start reading them. He would ask questions and have discussions with me that students in my class wouldn’t be able to have. He had an intellectually curious mind.”
Lane knew that Chayka potentially had an NHL future when they started to sell their expertise to NHL teams.
“When we would meet with teams and meet with their managements and coaching staffs and ownership, he would hold his own in those conversations,” Lane said. “He stayed strong to what he believes.”
Chayka, originally from Lincoln, Ontario, just north of Niagra Falls, is often billed as a Moneyball style manager and doesn’t mind the characterization.
“How I perceive it is that you are an analytical thinker who is looking for all kinds of avenues to improve your club,” Chayka said. “To me, that’s progress, and I embrace that.”
He paused, adding: “Other people perceive it that I’m a bit of a nerd and a number cruncher, and I’m OK with that perception, too.”
Chayka did read Moneyball, and acknowledges he has drawn inspiration from the story.
“There are parallels to what (Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane) went through and what I’m going through,” Chayka said.
Like Beane, Chayka is trying to build a contender with one of the league’s lowest budgets.
The decision to promote Chayka was done in conjunction with the decision to give Tippett the added title of executive vice president. The two collaborate on all personnel decisions. It’s a checks-and-balances system that is working because Tippett believes in Chayka.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Tippett said. “He’s thoughtful, and he listens.”
LeBlanc said he likes being involved in meetings with the team’s business executives because of the way he approaches problems.
“He has schooled some of my executives just by asking the right questions and getting people thinking about things,” LeBlanc said.
In five months on the job, Chayka has shown himself to be a highly aggressive trader. He has changed the Coyotes’ look. Alex Goligoski was brought in to strengthen the defense. Free agent acquisitions Jamie McGinn and Radim Vrbata could add 35-40 goals. He inherited a strong prospect stable but improved it with his trades for Lawson Crouse and Anthony DeAngelo.
Said Tippett: “I’m sure the players, along with everyone else, had lots of questions when he got the job. There were a lot of raised eyebrows, but he has come in and just done the job, and he has earned the players’ respect.”
Ken Holland, the Detroit Red Wings general manager since 1997, said Chayka’s hiring reflects the changing nature of sports.
“Certainly you are surprised when someone that young gets the job,” Holland said. “But I certainly understand. It’s a different time, and there are younger players and younger executives in all of the major sports.”
Chayka has swapped emails with Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein who was 28 when he became general manager of the Boston Red Sox. Chayka wants to find time to meet up with Epstein and learn what he can from Epstein’s story.
“He had success in Boston, and he was then able to replicate it,” Chayka said. “That’s where I want to be — to be at a point where people recognize you for your success, not because you are the answer to the trivia question about who was the youngest general manager.”