By Eric Duhatschek
Nov 21, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
On the surface, they seem like a most unlikely pair to run an NHL team.
On the one hand, you have John Chayka, the Arizona Coyotes’ general manager and president of hockey operations. Chayka was a 26-year-old wunderkind when he got the job in May 2016, which made him the youngest GM in the history of North American professional sports. Chayka cut his teeth in the analytics movement sweeping hockey and is one of its foremost advocates. He co-founded Stathletes Inc. in 2009 and rode a reputation as one of the brightest young minds in the game straight into the executive suite.
On the other hand, you have Rick Tocchet, now in his third season as the Coyotes coach. At age 55, Tocchet is exactly 25 years older than Chayka and the epitome of the NHL’s old school. As a player, Tocchet was a hard-knocks guy in a hard-knocks era, the prototype power forward. He was tough and skilled and made it to the NHL strictly by dint of hard work. Not many sixth-round draft choices, then or now, get to the NHL, let alone play 1,144 games over 18 years, score 440 goals, 952 points, accumulate 2,972 minutes in penalties and win the Stanley Cup.
So, an odd couple on paper that, upon further reflection and investigation, may not be so oddly matched after all. Because while the two may be a generation apart in age – and come at the game from completely different starting points – they also share a genuine willingness to be open-minded about the other’s area of expertise. And on an Arizona team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, it looks as if this unlikely union is working out quite well.
“Obviously, we have different backgrounds, but I really believe in diversity of opinion and thought,” Chayka said.
“Toc and I, we have our share of similarities – and we have some differences. I haven’t won a Stanley Cup. That’s a fact. And Rick has. So anytime you can learn from someone who’s done it, and understand the different nuances and backstories that go into it, it’s valuable. We have good conversations and it’s not always rosy, but there’s a lot of good debate.”
The full arc of Tocchet’s life in hockey shows a remarkable list of remarkable people that he’s crossed paths with. Mike Keenan coached him in Philadelphia early on. Wayne Gretzky’s been a pal for more than three decades. In Pittsburgh, Tocchet became close with Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey. He played three years for the Coyotes from 1997 to 2000 where he crossed paths with, among others, Mike Sullivan, a future colleague in the coaching profession.
When Tocchet first arrived in the league as a player, plus-minus was just being introduced into the NHL’s daily stats package – and was considered cutting-edge for the era. Eventually, Corsi and Fenwick came along and now, the amount of data at the disposal of teams is extraordinary – with a lot of clubs developing their own models so they can parse all the information available to them.
Analytics is helpful, said Tocchet, because it allows him to filter his favorite evaluation tool – the eye test – through the underlying numbers. In the best-case scenario, the two support each other.
“When I first took the job, I knew John was big into analytics,” said Tocchet, “so I wondered how that would work – because I don’t believe in coaching where you’ve got to look at numbers the whole time. I’m an eye-test guy too. Since I’ve been here, John has not one time shoved it down my throat. If we’re looking at a trade, or evaluating a guy’s play, he’ll say, ‘this guy’s got good numbers, and here are some of the reasons why.’
“And you go, ‘OK, wow, that’s interesting.’ So, it really gave me an open mind and it’s been a real unbelievable marriage, of me integrating with analytics, from being an eye-test guy. There are so many avenues that John uses that make sense – and it’s helped me become a better coach. He doesn’t force it on you. He gives you information subtly, when we need it, and I really appreciate how he’s done that.”
Chayka will tell you that the summer he conducted his first-ever coach’s search was a pivotal time in the Coyotes’ organizational history. Andrew Barroway had bought out his partners and became the team’s majority owner. Long-time coach Dave Tippett was moving on. The team was struggling at the box office, the arena saga was still ongoing and so Chayka couldn’t afford to make a mistake with this critical hire.
“There was a lot of turnover that summer and we were in a transition period,” said Chayka. “But it was no different than any other organization conducting a coaching search. You canvass the landscape and talk to as many people as you can that you trust and get as much information as possible.
“Toc’s career path was really unique and it lent itself to him being a strong candidate. He had NHL head coaching experience. He had success as an assistant coach and won back-to-back Cups. He had really good references from some of the top players in the world.”
Once Chayka actually met and spoke to Tocchet, he realized this was someone he could work with – and that their different backgrounds could be an asset, not a hindrance, to success. Philosophically, Chayka said he learned a few things about Tocchet early on – but that the most important was, he was willing to accept the challenge of a rebuild.
“First, he gets a reputation as being hard-driving and demanding – a pusher, a grinder, however you want to state it,” said Chayka. “But really what that’s borne out of is, his mind is always working. He’s always coming up with new ideas. He’s always questioning the status quo. If a player’s not playing well, he’s got different ideas about (how to remedy that). He’ll test different ideas – where we’re at, what we’re trying to do and what’s the best approach for a given situation.”
Nowadays, whenever Chayka and Tocchet get together to discuss ideas over dinner, a lot of the conversation focuses on the hockey tasks at hand. However, they also share of love of fine dining, according to Tocchet.
“John’s a foodie – and I’m a foodie too,” he said. “So, we share a lot of information about food. He’s also into all kinds of sports – and he has relationships with a lot of managers and coaches in other sports. Like he’s friends with (L.A. Rams coach) Sean McVay. He’s friends with (Chicago Cubs GM) Theo Epstein. So, I went to the Cubs’ spring training – he set that up. He’s big with talking to other organizations’ head people and he likes to come back with suggestions when we have dinner.”
When they get together socially, Chayka said he enjoys hearing tales about Tocchet’s experiences in the game — and the rough-and-tumble things he did as a player.
“For the most part, we’re pretty boring,” confesses Chayka. “We talk a lot about our team. We’re pretty obsessive about that. But we’re also pretty obsessive about fitness and training – and we like to talk about different trends there.
“Not many people probably know that the big tough guy Rick Tocchet is now a vegan – he’s trying that out. He watched that documentary “The Game Changers” and so he’s testing that out, to see how his body feels that way, and the different workouts he’s doing.”
When Tocchet’s playing career came to an end, he was like a lot of other now-former NHLers – looking forward to a retirement full of golf and leisure activities.
And that was fine, for a while.
“I played hockey from the time I was a young kid until I was 38 years old,” said Tocchet. “When you retire, you’re basically thinking: ‘I just want to golf. I just want to chill.’ Then six months into it – and actually, I think it was only three or four months into it – I’m thinking, ‘oh my gawd, what am I going to do now?’ I was drifting. I was at an age where I couldn’t really get into the business world. The business world’s tough when you only know hockey.
“So, what happened was, (former Colorado Avalanche general manager) Pierre Lacroix and Tony Granato called me in December (of 2002) to coach and I thought, ‘it’s the next best thing to playing. It’s a chance to help people out. It’s a chance to help build a winner.’ I just got into coaching because that’s what I know. I love the competition. I love the team game. Whatever part you can help – small part, big part – it intrigued me. And then it got into my blood.”
He began his coaching career with that call — as an assistant with the Avalanche. From there, he moved on to Arizona and from Arizona to Tampa, where he eventually landed the head coaching job during a tumultuous time during the Lightning’s ownership woes.
In Tampa, he worked with Sullivan, and eventually, when Tocchet landed back in Pittsburgh and Sullivan ascended to the top job around Christmas 2015, Tocchet became his primary assistant. In three years, the Penguins won two Stanley Cups.
According to Tocchet, Sullivan kept him on track during the discouraging final months of their time together in Tampa – and taught him an important lesson about process along the way.
“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a great situation in Tampa because the ownership was a little rocky and we weren’t a very good team,” said Tocchet. “I remember, I think it was around February, when Sully said to me, ‘let’s teach these guys and let’s develop these guys the best we can.’ We knew we were in trouble, but he wanted there to be a purpose every day and he kept me motivated and to stick with it.
“Sometimes as a coach, you can get negative and he really helped me keep a positive attitude. So, when Mike got the job in Pittsburgh and I kept my job there as an assistant, we had the same philosophy. He came in at a time when the team was underachieving. He had two unbelievable hockey players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). He said, ‘here are the things I want to do, what do you think?’ And with Jacques Martin, it was a great staff for me to learn from. I owe a lot to Sully.”
During his time in Pittsburgh, Tocchet became known as a coach the players could reach out to.
On Tocchet’s recommendation, the Coyotes made an aggressive offseason move to acquire Phil Kessel from the Penguins. For years, during the Penguins’ Cup runs, Kessel would tell anyone who asked that Tocchet was his all-time favorite assistant coach because he never lost touch with what it was like to be a player.
)But Tocchet also developed a relationship with Crosby that extended beyond their working hours together at the rink.
“Sid may not even know this, but he challenged me to be a better coach by bringing things up in conversation,” said Tocchet. “Sometimes, he’d call or text at 9 o’clock at night and say, ‘are you watching the San Jose game against Calgary? Did you see that face-off play they used? What do you think of it?’ Sometimes, I’d be out for dinner and reply, ‘geez, I didn’t see it, but I’ll take a look at it tomorrow.’ Then I’d make sure, the next morning, I’d get that video and dissect it.”
The years Tocchet spent with Keenan were particularly influential in terms of his development as a coach. Life under Iron Mike was not always a happy time, but Tocchet had the sort of personality that allowed him to shrug off the intimidating moments and focus on the innovative parts of Keenan’s approach.
“Mike was ahead of his time in many ways,” said Tocchet. “He started the 45-minute high-tempo practice. He made sure every player had his own water bottle. Before, there’d be like three water bottles on the bench and everybody would drink out of the same ones. In those days, very rarely did organizations take their players out for team meals, but we had a lot of team meals in Philadelphia.
“In-game, he was only worried about what was happening that night. He didn’t care about the next game. So, if you were going, you played. Wayne Gretzky once told me, when your team was up in a game, he was the best bench coach he ever had. So, for me, Mike was cutting edge in a lot of ways.”
Nobody in today’s game can use fear as a tactic to motivate anymore the way Keenan once did.
“If you were to call in a player now and tell them they stink or ‘you’re terrible,’ then their defenses are up,” Tocchet said. “Back when I played, Mike Keenan would say to you: ‘If I don’t see an improvement in your play, you’re going down to Hershey. Get out of my office.’ That’s the way it was back then. Nowadays, you need to explain to players why we’re having a day off or why I’m putting you on this line.”
Recently, Tocchet believes that positive messaging may have contributed to one of the best moments of the Coyotes’ season thus far — last week, when the team won back-to-back games, on the road, against the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues, the last two Stanley Cup champions. Tocchet thought the team looked tired before heading out on the road and so, after consulting with his coaching staff, decided they needed a pep talk that acknowledged where they were at, physically.
“We did a little pre-scout on Washington, but my message was, ‘Here’s the deal, guys. This next week is a challenge, so we’re going to give you these days off, we’re going to have an off-ice workout here and I explained why: So they could manage their rest – because we’re kind of beat up and we’re a little tired and that this would help us maximize the energy we have in the room. I said to (assistant coaches) Phil Housley and John MacLean I felt a little energy boost as we left and I honestly believe it really helped us in that game.”
In 35 years in the game, Tocchet hasn’t just crossed paths with most of the greats – he has developed close friendships with them.
“Mario Lemieux got me back into coaching after the Tampa experience,” said Tocchet. “Wayne Gretzky – we became friends in the ’87 Canada Cup. Paul Coffey, another guy I’ve known for years, my roommate at the Canada Cups. I love the way those guys act around people. They don’t act like superstars.
“When I’ve struggled as a coach, Coff would call me up and say, ‘keep doing what you’re doing. Make sure to stay with your convictions.’ These are Hall of Fame players and people, the best at their craft, and I can speed dial them at any time for some kind of thing – and they take my call. I’m very blessed to have those types of people in my life.”
Chayka’s rebuilding strategy received the ultimate endorsement in mid-November, when new majority owner Alex Meruelo announced a long-term contract extension for the now 30-year-old GM, noting that he was “fully confident” that Chayka was the right person to lead the club forward and help bring the Stanley Cup to Arizona.
The franchise, which was born in 1979-80 as the Winnipeg Jets, has only ever advanced as far as the conference final once in history and has never played in a Stanley Cup final.
But the Coyotes were one of the NHL’s better feelgood stories in the final third of last season, making a big push toward the playoffs, despite a criminal run of injuries. Ultimately, they fell short but optimism was running high this year and a quarter of the way through the season, they are in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference.
After a difficult start a year ago, some of the momentum the Coyotes established toward the end of last season has spilled over into the new season.
“Everyone looks at adversity as a negative thing,” said Chayka, “but adversity is, unfortunately, the path to success. We faced a lot of it over the past few years, and I think we’re better for it. You can only get through that adversity with strong leadership and Toc’s brought that to our entire organization. I think our players have seemingly learned from that – and mined those lessons.
“We’ve gotten off to a good start here – and hopefully we can continue trending in the right way. We’ve got a good foundation. I think these guys really understand what it takes – and hopefully, we can take the next step.”
According to Tocchet, that is the final goal he and Chayka have in common: To make hockey relevant again in Arizona.
“I know John wants that too,” said Tocchet. “We take a lot of pride in trying to get it done.”