Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka expected to be scoreboard watching in March, with his team in the thick of an extraordinarily tight Western Conference playoff race. Instead, he was packing boxes with emergency kits at St. Mary's Food Bank, helping out his community during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think people can get paralyzed by wondering what they can do as an individual. But then you start doing things and then other people start doing things, and that can have a cumulative effect and a strong impact on society," Chayka told ESPN in an interview this week.
His charity extended to a donation of 20% of his salary to support the Arizona coronavirus relief fund and other Arizona non-profits working to combat COVID-19's impact. Chayka and his wife, Kathryn, also donated 1,000 meals from the Wendy's restaurants they co-own in Ontario to local hospitals, fire stations and police stations.
While every NHL team is in a period of uncertainty, the Coyotes face a ton of it. Whether or not they'll have the opportunity to complete a playoff push. Whether star winger Taylor Hall, acquired from the New Jersey Devils in December, will choose to re-sign or leave via free agency.
Our wide-ranging conversation with Chayka touched on those issues. We also discussed how he's working with executives in other sports to plan a path back to restarting; his decision to help charities during the pandemic; and what he sees as the future of the NHL after the worst is over.
(Note: Chayka declined to comment on the ongoing investigation into the Coyotes for allegedly fitness testing draft-eligible players illegally, ahead of the entry draft.)
First, a look at the Coyotes after the season was paused on March 12
ESPN: When the NHL paused its season, the Coyotes had 74 points in 70 games. You were four points out of a playoff spot. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen told us this week that the Blue Jackets have submitted some proposals to the league regarding an expanded playoff field if the regular season isn't completed. Would you support that, and have you submitted any plans?
Chayka: Good question. A lot of what's going to happen in society and in health is going to dictate any format or return to play. It's inevitable. So I can't really accurately lobby for anything without knowing the parameters of what's going to happen. I would just say that regardless of the format, regardless of the approach, it's going to be a holistic view from the league. Taking everything into account. The integrity. The competitiveness. The economics. And not just for one team or market.
We have submitted some ideas and concepts, more quantitatively based in terms of what could drive revenues and what could be advantageous for the greater whole, and not just in terms of the Coyotes' self-interests. But ultimately, the [NHL's] job is to take all the information from all the different clubs and make the best decision.
ESPN: Sure, but you either need to have the regular season completed or the playoffs expanded for the Coyotes to have a chance at the postseason. You don't get in via points or points percentage if it's 16 teams. It's kind of cut and dry.
Chayka: Yep. From the Coyotes' perspective, we know what that means. From the league's perspective, there's just a lot of factors. Even completing the regular season ... the idea that in the near future, everyone's going to be flying around to different cities against different teams, that probably isn't feasible here. So what does that look like instead? These are much bigger questions than anyone has information to answer right now.
ESPN: There is a grand tradition of the NHL going to extraordinary lengths to help out the Coyotes.
ESPN: The Coyotes had a remarkable season, in the sense that you spent to the salary cap, you made a blockbuster trade for Taylor Hall and mortgaged some future assets in doing so, and you're right in the playoff hunt. Yet you don't know where the finish line is or if there's going to be a finish line. Yes, there are countless aspects of this pandemic that are more important than the success of the Arizona Coyotes, but for you personally, as a general manager, has this been difficult?
Chayka: There's no doubt. I felt like we were playing some good hockey. I know what the narrative was around our group was, but this is what we built toward. Last year, we were in the playoffs at the 70-game mark, but then Colorado jumped over us. So now we were in the reverse situation. We all know for this organization that getting in was huge. We're looking at getting over a tipping point as an organization, and that would have been a big part of it. That's frustrating, and now the dynamics have changed considerably and there's a lot going on. But ultimately, we're still positioned well. We've still got a great pipeline of young players coming up and the young players in our lineup got great experience. We were hoping that this stretch run would have provided them an opportunity to apply that experience and get in and make a run at something.
I've talked to friends in the NBA that have a group that can win. They're upset because they felt like they had that chance to win this year and they might not get that chance. Then I have some friends in MLB that are in rebuilding mode, and it's a rebuilding opportunity lost -- a chance to get reps for young players. No matter what the person's perspective is, we all feel some hardship in this. The Coyotes are no different. But we felt like we had some positive momentum in our group, even if this certainly altered some of those things.
On sports and COVID-19
ESPN: Has your stat brain taken over in following the COVID-19 pandemic?
Chayka: Yeah. It's funny, when this started I thought I was going to get a lot of time to catch up on some books on the shelf or that I bought from Amazon. But I've ended up only consuming COVID-19 information, which has been interesting. At first, it was a lot of podcasts and things like that. But now it's evolved into more research, peer review articles, a lot more quantitative information to follow, from a health and wellness perspective to the economic fallout and the longer-lasting implications. This morning, I read a real estate article about COVID-19's impact in China, and trying to reimagine what that looks like, not only from an officer perspective but for hotels and flex housing. It's been interesting.
Early on, the big question was "when are you guys coming back to play?" So I'm trying to stay well-researched. Not to give people answers, but give them the best information in terms of what I do know. So it's been all-consuming.
ESPN: Does that extend to sports? Kekalainen mentioned this week that he's been keeping an eye on other countries and how some leagues are ramping up, like with small groups of players practicing. Are you also monitoring this?
Chayka: I've been part of a working group of GMs -- a couple of NBA GMs, some folks from the EPL, some from the German soccer league and others -- and we've been talking once a week, getting on some Zoom calls. The EPL was talking a lot this week about their return-to-play protocols, or return-to-train protocols. That's step one for them. I think one of the things this has all taught us is that details and the nuance are extremely important. So we talked about how you get into your training facility, and about the paths that players take as they're ramping things up and sticking to small groups. These players are walking around, crossing paths, and how do you do that? How do you maximize the amount of airways that are going through the building to minimize how the virus is sustained in those areas? PPE for your own staff, having access to thermometers. That level of detail. But if you really want to come back in safe way, they're of the utmost importance.
ESPN: Did you get a sense from those other executives what it would take to open up their seasons again? Is it as simple as testing and isolation of athletes?
Chayka: Nothing's simple. Testing sounds simple, but it's very complex. How to train and isolate sounds simple, but it's really complex. Even how to get players in and out of a facility in safe way is a more complex endeavor than one can imagine. But that's the new normal. That's what we're trying to get our head around. We're all trying to err on the side of caution. So yeah, we've talked about MLB and NBA and how they're reimagining [their seasons] for their returns. But as much as we're talking to the EPL about what they're doing, there are differences in the sports and the geography and what's happening in those areas. But those analog conversations help stimulate some good thinking about it.
On helping during the pandemic
"How can we help?"— Arizona Coyotes (@ArizonaCoyotes) April 15, 2020
GM Chayka and his wife @KathrynChayka asked themselves this. Then, they donated a portion of their salary to COVID-19 relief in Arizona and gifted over 1,000 meals to healthcare and frontline workers through their @Wendys franchises. 👏 pic.twitter.com/clN0hzMct6
ESPN: You and your wife, Kathryn, have been very active in helping with charitable efforts during the coronavirus shutdown. What inspired you?
Chayka: I think one of the positives that's come out of this, and I try to take positives out it, is that I'm more grateful than I've ever been. Some of that spurred some thoughts about what we could do for others. There were some emails back and forth with [NHL executive vice president] Kim Davis, and she talked about this being an opportunity to define your organization and your style of leadership. It's easy to be good when things are going good, but when it's bad, how do you react? So we tried to apply some of those principles.
We have to all get through this together. You try not to overthink it, but this is probably the most profound thing that will ever happen in my lifetime. I certainly hope it is. There's going to be a lot of hard times and hardships, both in our organization and society as a whole. What can we do individually to help with this? That's why it matters.
I've also had a number of folks reach out in the restaurant industry to ask how I got started and how they can do something similar. We're going to do a restaurant initiative here in Arizona with local hospitals.
ESPN: Let's talk about that. You donated 1,000 meals to frontline workers in Ontario from the 14 Wendy's restaurants you owned, and I think a lot of us were surprised to see that you owned 14 Wendy's restaurants. What's that about?
Chayka: Yeah, and we're growing, too. After I left Stathletes, my wife was graduating from business school and was looking for something to do. Her parents owned some Tim Horton's in Ontario, so she grew up around the quick serve industry. One of my closest friends, his dad had connections to Wendy's. They were turning some corporate stores into franchises. It was a good investment for me, and my wife was willing to be the operator of them. It's been phenomenal. A great experience. We employ 500-plus employees. And now, to have the opportunity to give back to that community has been awesome.
ESPN: You've also donated 20% of your salary to COVID-19 relief efforts, which was a bit different than the salary reductions other execs -- like in Dallas, for example -- have made to aid their own teams. Can you take us behind that decision?
Chayka: [Team president] Ahron Cohen came to me with the idea and asked how we can make an impact and give back. We came up with the concept and felt like it could help a lot of people. It starts at the top with [owner] Alex Meruelo. He was willing to pay our arena staffers, make them whole during this. It goes back to looking at some of the things in our community, trying to be a leader. Obviously, we wanted to help the Arizona COVID-19 fund as much as possible, and some of the other local charities that are hard hit. But I think everyone views this as a health crisis, but there's a lot of fallout around this. I saw that firsthand: The governor's people called us and asked for us to do some work at the food bank.
ESPN: When it comes to the Coyotes, you still expect staffing levels and compensation to be maintained, or do you think there's a possibility that there's going to be reductions and furloughs as we move deeper into this?
Chayka: I think it's impossible to say, just based on the dynamics of what's going on in the global economy. It's no one's preference to do any of these things. Alex and others are trying to do as much as they can, given the circumstances. I'm fortunate enough to know a lot of people that have significant wealth and everyone's getting hit right now. To try to forecast the next month or two months ... I think we're hopeful that everything we're looking to do has been done, and we're hopeful to keep as much together for as long as we can. But I'd just be guessing.
On Taylor Hall
ESPN: Back to the Coyotes. There's been a lot of speculation about what contracts could look like in free agency, whenever it happens. Several agents have told me that short-term deals for players, and maybe back-loaded contracts, could be the way things go in the offseason. Obviously there are a lot of unknowns, especially about the salary cap, but is that something you're anticipating?
Chayka: I'm considering everything right now. One of the biggest parts of my job is planning. With the Coyotes, there's always been a lot of unknowns, so we're the experts on flexibility and having multiple plans. Waiting for new information and being adaptable. Operating that way. There are still so many variables that are unknown. Including when the offseason is. I think until the greater economy and health stabilizes -- and we all know the word "stabilizes" can mean different things -- and it trickles down to our league, there's just way too many things to even discuss. The length of contracts. The value of contracts. When the league might have a billion-dollar shortfall it's trying to reconcile ... those are a lot of moving targets that are much larger than the Coyotes' economic plan.
ESPN: Darren Ferris, the agent for Taylor Hall, told Hot Stove on NHL Network Radio that the Coyotes haven't approached him during this pause regarding contract talks. Is that accurate?
Chayka: I think there's a bit of nuance there. I've talked to Darren a few times. I've had multiple conversations with Taylor as well. I think Taylor has the same view in terms of planning for himself and the organization. Obviously, he has a great understanding of what's going on in the world right now. I think there's a right time to approach some of these things. Unfortunately, it's difficult given all of the uncertainty. But we'll have that discussion. It's not an evaluation-type discussion, because Taylor Hall is a great player. As much as players and teams will be impacted by this, great players will still get paid. And that's our expectation in dealing with Taylor. Darren's accurate in saying that we haven't had any meaningful back-and-forths, because we're still figuring out what we're working towards, in the greater picture.
ESPN: You have to feel bad for Taylor. He has waited years to be the star of free agency like John Tavares or Artemi Panarin, and he might not get a chance to do that for a number of reasons. He's like a student that worked four years to graduate but doesn't get to walk on stage to get the diploma.
Chayka: But you know him, he's a smart individual. He thinks things through deeply. He realizes that any hardships that he might be feeling right now are minimal. It doesn't change the fact that he's a great player. It doesn't change the fact that he's still in a good position. Taylor Hall will be just fine.
ESPN: Hall told The Athletic that he's probably still seeking a long-term deal despite the current economics. Do you feel Arizona is positioned well to give him one?
Chayka: At the end of the day, the NHL will still be here, once we work through everything. The Coyotes will be as well. I don't think long term vs. short term is a huge discussion vs. what it's going to look like. There's certainly implications of this. I'm not saying it doesn't apply. But we weren't afraid to have a discussion about a longer term before, and this doesn't change that opinion.