Traditionally, there has been an accepted path for hockey careers to follow, no matter who you are and what part of the world you come from.
First, you play. Then, if you're good enough, you make it to the top level. You have a career there, and then when your body begins to break down or you decide that maybe the grind of an 82-game season and a summer of weight and conditioning training is too much, you retire.
You become a coach, maybe in your specialty position (defense or offense) or if you're really lucky, a desperate team takes a chance on you as a head coach and you're given overall control of a franchise. You learn the art of coaching, have success or otherwise, spend ten, twenty or maybe even 30 years doing that job, and then you get moved upstairs, to the big offices and the rarified air of GMship.
And below you, others are making their way through the system, learning the same "culture" and ways of thinking that guided you. The accepted way. The "hockey man" way.
The Birth of the Hockey Man
The "hockey man" is an interesting archetype and rhetorical device in the NHL and the hockey media as a whole. It's a two-word phrase that contains multitudes.
In its traditional form, to call someone a "hockey man" implies that they have developed knowledge and insight that is somehow not available to the "layman" simply through being around the game a long time.
More than that, when used in the context of discussing trades, drafting, or player development, it's usually used to dismiss any new or different way of looking at the game. Journalists like Mark Spector, Dave Staples, and Steve Simmons, bastions of the "traditionalist" view of hockey, often use it, or they claim that people are not a “hockey man”, as a way to dismiss anything that goes against their worldview or as an appeal to authoritative rhetorical fallacy.
We see a fine example of it in this piece from Spector - an absolute horror-show of prejudice, fallacy, and bad journalism, which is awful all the way through but reaches peak "traditional hockey journalist" idiocy with this passage:
"The stats geeks still hate the Hall trade. The reason? Because their craft isn’t far enough along at this point to quantify the qualities in Larsson’s game that makes Edmonton better.
Conduct a poll of 200 hockey men, and it might be unanimous: Edmonton got what it needed in that deal, and giving up Hall was well worth it."
Spector then doubles down on idiocy with a bogus assumption to finish the piece.
Hall’s Oilers would curl up in a ball when met with this game. Larsson’s prevailed. It’s not so simple – no trade is – but GM Peter Chiarelli really nailed this one, acquiring a hard, sometimes-dirty, physical player who perfectly embodies everything the old Oilers lacked.
This piece beautifully demonstrates the myth of "hockey men" and the lionization of it by NHL journalists because it essentially argues that when you become one (after serving your long apprenticeship in the game under other hockey men") you are on a level above those who merely use empirical data and precedent to watch the game. You just know. You are presented with a second sight that others cannot hope to acquire.
Essentially, what the "hockey man" archetype says is that "unless you've served your time, respect the TRADITIONAL values of hockey, and think in vague generalities that can't be quantified that you've learned by absorbing all the prejudices and thinking of those before you, you are not worthy of respect in hockey. More to the point, you will always be beaten by someone who has".
This archetype and the use of it as a positive by journalists like Spector, is a symptom of hockey's backwardness. It's a manifestation of an unwillingness to change and embrace new ways of thinking and looking at the game that holds it back in a way that sports like soccer and baseball have managed to break away from. And more to the point, it's a form of gatekeeping that stifles innovation and new thought in a sport that desperately needs it.
"Hockey men" think that hockey can't work in the desert. "Hockey men" think that European players are soft. "Hockey men" think that dropping the gloves is a far better way to prove a point to an opponent on the ice than scoring a goal. "Hockey men" think nothing of saying they'd love to punch their own employees because their analysis of a game contradicts everything they think they know.
And "hockey men" and their mentality are everything that is wrong with the NHL - a dying breed of rotting infection within the game that refuses to be killed off because of journalists like Spector refusing to let them take their place in history.
A New Breed Of Hockey Man
But in Arizona, John Chayka is perhaps the standard-bearer for the fight against this way of thinking, and it's not just important for the Coyotes that he succeeds - it's important for the game as a whole.
It's easy to forget in all the commotion and coverage of Chayka as a "stats-driven" GM (or in Spector's words, a "stats geek") that he has in fact, to coin a phrase the traditionalists like to throw around at every opportunity, "paid his dues" in the game. As a highly-rated OHL draft pick and goalscoring junior winger whose career was curtailed by injury, and someone who had earned a reputation of knowing the game inside out thanks to his work with the company he founded, Stathletes, he has seen the game from both sides.
At this point, the traditionalists in hockey media will doubtless argue that because his career hasn't followed the "accepted" path, that Chayka has not earned the credentials to be called a “hockey man”. In short, they're once again appealing to authority by saying you can't be a "hockey man" until you've followed a very narrowly defined set of criteria, ironically championed most by people who claim to be part of that fraternity in a journalistic capacity but often haven't had near the involvement of those they criticized (I can't find Mark Spector's player or coaching stats anywhere, funnily enough).
I would argue that Chayka is not a "hockey man" - at least not in the traditional way "hockey men" are supposed to be. He is, in fact, the next evolution beyond this archetype - and a trailblazer for the growing number of those like him who are emerging in hockey.
Chayka is a GM who combines the best of both worlds - experience within the game with a sharp mind and willingness to embrace every tool at his disposal, rather than fear it, like GMs such as Pierre Dorion (he of the ridiculous "I want to punch my analytics guys" statement above). He is clearly a man who is aware that he's coming into and operating in a fraternity that will view him with skepticism and even outright hostility (as touched upon in this excellent Sportsnet interview from last year - the comments in that piece are also a fine example of such hostility from "traditionalist" hockey fans), but is unapologetic in stating that he will be the person responsible for personnel decisions in Arizona for as long as his tenure lasts.
It's also interesting that the Coyotes haven't been shy in surrounding Chayka with appointees who would likely make traditionalists in hockey foam at the mouth in anger and shock - for example hiring Gary Drummond as "director of hockey operations" from a career practicing law and 25 years in the oil and gas industry - as well as more traditional choices like Dave Tippett, in a management group that makes collaboration its key aim.
Some would say that Tippett's appointment to this committee means that the impact of the "hockey man" is still strong and vindicated (although they conveniently fail to note that Tippett is also a fan of stats and has kept his own data for close to 20 years), and indeed proves the point that Chayka himself isn't actually following a path different to any other team - teams like Toronto with Kyle Dubas.
Crucially, though, it is Chayka making the decisions - and this is the key in what Arizona are doing: they are breaking the mold of having "hockey men" be those who have the final say on what their hockey team does.
Instead, they are trusting John Chayka to be the arbiter of all these differing views and put them together to do what's best for the Coyotes - to analyze all available data and make a decision based upon that, using his experience and skills gained only tangentially to hockey at the forefront.
The Future At Work
Essentially, John Chayka is flying in the face of what "traditionalists" say a hockey man should be. Chayka is not a man guided by "feelings" or willing to use considerations like "grit", "energy", or "intangibles" - and his GMing will take very little account of these.
Indeed, he's said as much, saying that he's open to any sort of move as long as it makes the team better. That willing to think outside the strictures of "traditional" hockey thought and consideration is what makes him different from the qualities of a "hockey man". It's what will give him and the Coyotes success.
Crucially, that success is what will finally make sure that articles and views like Spector's quoted above will, in the fullness of time, be seen for the blinkered, restrictive mentality that they and the "hockey man" way of thinking are.
That success will play a large part in changing hockey's thought processes for the better, and for that reason, hockey as a whole should be wishing John Chayka every success over the next few years.
Well, unless you're a "hockey man" unable to face your own extinction, that is.