When the news filtered out this week that John Chayka was about to become the youngest general manager in NHL history, the reaction from many outside observers was the same.
Who exactly is John Chayka?
The 26-year-old from tiny Jordan Station, Ont., has not been around long and has kept a low profile. He spent this past season as a first-year assistant GM focused on analytics with the Arizona Coyotes, and to the public eye, those were his first tentative steps in an NHL front office.
But there Chayka was on Thursday morning at a news conference at Gila River Arena, front and centre, part of a large-scale Coyotes management shuffle that started with the firing of Don Maloney as GM last month.
The Coyotes also announced that long-time head coach Dave Tippett would gain the title of executive vice-president of hockey operations. It's believed his new five-year contract allows him to be elevated into the role of president down the road.
That gives Tippett far more power in the organization, the most of any coach in the league. But Chayka has quickly earned total support from ownership – especially wealthy Regina businessman Gary Drummond, who was appointed president of hockey operations on Thursday – and will be Tippett's right-hand man.
Those who know Chayka well are not surprised he has become hockey's first data-oriented GM, with a Theo Epstein-like rise to running an NHL team only two years after graduating from the University of Western Ontario.
"He always knew this is what he wanted to do," said Neil Lane, the CEO of Stathletes, the St. Catharines, Ont.-based hockey analytics company that he and Chayka founded six years ago. "He has been studying the game, every aspect of the game – coaching, trades, the CBA, everything – and he's been doing it since way before most people were interested in girls, let alone careers."
Stathletes has been the key to Chayka's quick progression. The company started in the basement of the family home, relying on his ideas about how to develop new statistics coupled with Lane's business and software savvy.
Terry Chayka, John's father, became Stathletes' first tracker, which meant watching plenty of NHL games and recording the detailed events – that his son specified – for every single player.
"I remember leaving for school early in the morning, then coming back, and Terry would still be in front of the computer," said Dan Dooley, a friend and former teammate of Chayka who lived with the family while playing for Brock University. "He would be on his second game of the day, breaking it down. He was the one who was collecting all of the stats right from the get-go."
Six years later, Stathletes is likely the largest hockey analytics company in the world, with more than $1-million in annual revenue and 55 employees. Forty of those are dedicated "cutters" – staff focused entirely on watching hundreds of hockey games from the NHL, junior hockey and college, and tracking stats for Stathletes' giant database.
It takes two staffers an entire day to track one hockey game, and Stathletes has catalogued more than 10,000.
"Their game reports absolutely blow you away," one person familiar with their work – but sworn to secrecy – said.
Chayka's big break came in 2012 when the Vancouver Canucks covertly flew Stathletes out for an in-depth presentation of their work. That turned into a lucrative – and exclusive – three-year contract with their first NHL team.
No one with the Canucks former management team would comment about Chayka's involvement, but his reputation around the league grew from there. As soon as Stathletes' deal with Vancouver expired, more teams were lining up to talk to them.
The Coyotes were one of the first the company presented to last spring. Not only did Arizona want in, it wanted Chayka.
"It was a real eyeopener for me," Drummond said of that initial meeting, which tellingly included Tippett but not Maloney.
On Thursday, the team introduced Chayka by calling him "the youngest GM in professional sports history."
"He's going to be a difference maker," Tippett said.
In addition to his work with analytics, what helped Chayka get the GM job over more seasoned executives the Coyotes interviewed over the last month was his ability to network and build relationships. Not only has Chayka won over Drummond and Tippett, but he has made many friends in high places in the hockey world and beyond.
A top Junior A player in the Maritimes before a serious back injury forced him to retire, Chayka has been very close with Coyotes rookie Max Domi for years. He was his personal trainer and makeshift nutritionist when Domi was playing for the London Knights and Chayka was attending the University of Western Ontario.
"He's very good with people," explained Pat Brisson, one of the NHL's most high-profile player agents and someone Chayka thanked multiple times at the news conference for helping him get into the business. "I'm not surprised with everything that's going on with him and how quickly he's climbing the ladder. He's very smart, very humble and has a good personality."
"John's the type of guy you could introduce to the Queen and he would fit in," Dooley added.
Brisson believes Chayka can succeed in Arizona because he will seek out the right support. The Coyotes will continue to search for a veteran assistant GM to work with Chayka after failing to come to terms with Les Jackson of the Dallas Stars for that role.
Whoever takes the job will have to be content with being only third or fourth on the organizational depth chart, as it's clear Tippett will wield the most influence in an arrangement unique in the league.
Other NHL executives expressed admiration for Chayka's innovative work with video and analytics, but said that any 26-year-old with limited front-office experience – and in such an unorthodox management setup – would struggle to succeed.
"Making him GM with one year of experience is insanity," an executive with another team said.
What also may work against Chayka is the Coyotes' financial situation, as they again had one of the lowest payrolls in the league this season and are still working to find a new arena. There's a belief in the organization, however, that Chayka's analytical methods can help them find undervalued players and make the playoffs even with a bottom-10 payroll.
While Chayka left Stathletes to join the Coyotes last year, he continues to rely on them to provide him with data. His father and sister, Meghan, still both have high-level roles with the company, and he has ties to many of its staff. (Stathletes declined to comment on whether he retained an ownership stake.)
Now that Chayka has a more prominent role in Arizona, the Coyotes will become a high profile test case of what he and Lane began to build in their basement back in 2010.
Lane has full confidence his (very young) old friend can make it work.
"I think hockey is changing," Lane said. "Other sports have led the way, and they've proven that [analytics] aren't going anywhere. They've shown that if you're not on board then you're going to fall off the apple cart. Baseball's a perfect example. They've got a lot of 30-something-year-old GMs now, just because it's permeated deeper in that spot.
"The Coyotes realized the value was in understanding how to find advantages in the data [we were producing]. That's why they took John on."