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John Chayka, the new general manager of the Arizona Coyotes, says a lot of business principles can be applied to the sports industry. ‘There’s a direct correlation.’ (Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
John Chayka, the new general manager of the Arizona Coyotes, says a lot of business principles can be applied to the sports industry. ‘There’s a direct correlation.’ (Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

SPORTS

Ivey grad John Chayka brings business to the blueline Add to ...

The numbers don’t lie. After winning four of their first 10 games, the Arizona Coyotes sit in the bottom third of the National Hockey League standings.

Seeing the Desert Dogs, as they’re nicknamed, languishing near the basement of the world’s best hockey league is nothing new – they’ve missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons and in 10 of the past 13.

But reversing that trend was exactly what ownership had in mind when it appointed John Chayka as the youngest general manager in the history of the NHL last June, at age 26. Now 27, barely older than the 26.22 average age of his Coyotes squad, Mr. Chayka is a rarity in an often-insular industry as someone who neither played the game at the highest level nor grew up in an NHL family.

Though he is a full 16 years younger than his next-youngest contemporary, Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman (the son of Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman), Mr. Chayka doesn’t think his lack of NHL bloodlines or top-level experience will hold him back in any way.

“Running a hockey team or sports team, it’s a business,” he says. “There are a lot of business principles that you can apply to the sports industry, there’s a direct correlation.”

Mr. Chayka already had familiarity with running a business when he joined the NHL as the Coyotes’ assistant GM, analytics, in the summer of 2015. That was established as a 19-year-old when he teamed with his sister, Meghan, and friend Neil Lane to found Stathletes Inc. The company, based out of St. Catharines, Ont., was established to provide hockey decision-makers with the statistical-based tools to ensure they were making the most informed decisions about their on-ice properties.

But while that venture fed his love of hockey – Mr. Chayka, like so many other Canadians, had wanted to be an NHL player until a back injury as a teenager brought an end to that dream – he knew he lacked the business acumen that is increasingly in demand these days. And while he admits that Stathletes helped in building what he terms the softer skills – people skills such as those involved in dealing with clients and employees – he knew he needed to brush up in other areas.

“I needed to upgrade my technical skills,” he says. “I think in life, at some point, if you only have one or the other, it only gets you so far. I think you need them both in combination to have success.”

Mr. Chayka enrolled at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., and undertook an honours in business administration degree. While he credits his studies with helping him get where he is today, he admits his experience of business school was less about the nuances of each class and more about strategic-level thinking.

“You learn a lot of different, great ways to analyze different problems and solve different issues, but at the end of the day, the way to apply it to other walks of life isn’t just to know the formula, it’s to know how to apply it and how to use it in real life.”

Mr. Chayka’s “dream job” is composed of many facets, from dealing with employees to the annual NHL draft, where the decisions he makes in conjunction with his staff will affect the futures of not only the teenaged draft picks that are selected but also his franchise, for years to come.

Facing important decisions on an almost daily basis, the Jordan Station, Ont., native says he still relies on the notes he took at business school to help him navigate the often-choppy waters of his profession.

“I think that’s the wonder of going to a university that’s so well known for developing an intellectual curiosity and providing you with tools for the rest of your life,” he says. “There was no memorizing formula or trying to memorize something to cram for an exam; it was all about the case-based learning and the process of decision-making.”

The rise of young decision-makers such as Mr. Chayka and Kyle Dubas, the 29-year-old assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has fed into a new venture out of Athabasca University, a predominantly online educational institution based out of Athabasca, Alta.

In 2014, it incorporated its Business of Hockey Institute, and a year later offered the world’s first executive MBA program focused specifically on hockey, designed to channel greater business methodology into the day-to-day running of the sport. The brainchild of hockey agent Ritch Winter and Brian Burke, the Calgary Flames president of hockey operations, the institute was founded to ensure that the sport stepped up its game in the office.

While professional hockey has long operated on an old boys’ club basis, increasingly the modern game demands more of its executives than simply evaluating on-ice talent. Consequently, skills such as accounting and finance are almost equally as important in a sport that is increasingly selling a total entertainment experience as much as it is selling goals and glove saves.

“There’s really a need for it in hockey,” says Michael Mauws, executive director at the Business of Hockey Institute. “It’s long overdue and people like John, we’ve got our fingers crossed, we want to see him succeed because he could demonstrate that there is some benefit to hiring people based on their abilities rather than how well they played on the ice.”

The course’s strength relies on its peer-to-peer interaction, so the institute tries to cap its classes at no more than 25 per cent non-hockey students. While it’s designed to foster a growth in skills necessary in today’s professional sports world, “We’re not here to make you into a GM,” Mr. Mauws says.

While the course is on the radar of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Mr. Mauws says Mr. Bettman is waiting to see what the graduates of the program look like before the NHL gives it its seal of approval. The institute’s credibility will get a shot in the arm this month when Chicago Blackhawks president and chief executive officer John McDonough, who has led his team to three Stanley Cups in the past six years, accepts the first honorary certified hockey professional designation from the Business of Hockey Institute this month.

Given his work both on and off the ice for the Blackhawks, Mr. McDonough’s recognition will help epitomize what a modern professional is all about.

“It used to be that you sold tickets to watch the game, and now what you’ve got is the franchise [as] a core asset that you’re trying to leverage in a myriad of ways,” Mr. Mauws says. “You can’t just put a team on the ice, open the gates and charge people to walk in the door. You’re never going to make enough to pay [player] salaries doing it like that.”

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