Chayka Suspended For 2021 Calendar Year: What's Next?
By: Matt Rubinoff
This past week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ruled on a suspension for former Arizona Coyotes General Manager John Chayka. Chayka left the Coyotes unceremoniously in July, with the team releasing a memorable statement accusing their former General Manager of “quitting” on the organization. As a result of the breakup, Commissioner Bettman has suspended Chayka for the remainder of the 2021 calendar year, citing “conduct detrimental to the league and game.”
As reported at that time, the Commissioner of the NHL – under Section 6.3(b) of the league’s Constitution – has the power to arbitrate disputes between teams and employees. Consequently, Bettman holds the final and binding authority to (1) choose to hear the case, and (2) rule on the case accordingly.
What is Conduct Detrimental?
Although the documented decision has not been released to the public, reporters are beginning to piece together Bettman’s thought process in the case. The phrase “conduct detrimental” is common legalese among professional sports leagues, usually inserted within professional conduct policies for players and teams to perform and act in a certain way, subject to the approval of the relevant governing body, whether it be a team or league’s ruling on a player, executive, manager, or related employee.
Enforcement of these compliance measures is relatively rare, especially in the NHL. The broad scope of authority to rule on “conduct detrimental” allows for varied interpretations of the rule. One of the more polarizing examples of this, going back to 2015, was the deflate-gate scandal with the New England Patriots and their then-quarterback Tom Brady. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell leaned hard on the conduct detrimental clause of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, allowing him to suspend Brady for Brady’s alleged tampering with the weight of game-used footballs. In his decision, Goodell reasoned that Brady’s violation of an “established rule” of not altering the pressure of NFL footballs gave him “ample reason [to deem his actions] conduct detrimental.”
Here, Bettman presumably similarly used his powers but is unlikely to receive as much backlash as Goodell did for wielding his broad authority. If anything, this sets a stern precedent for NHL executives to honor their contract and avoid any unnecessary tampering allegations while being employed by their respective teams. As noted from Elliotte Friendman’s 31 Thoughts column, “[a] couple of [NHL] executives said they weren’t surprised Bettman would send a powerful message enforcing contracts because owners wouldn’t want their GMs following any precedent.” In this case, consider this a warning shot from the Commissioner.
Theory of the Case
In 1994, Bettman suspended Mike Keenan sixty days and fined him $100,000 for signing a contract with the St. Louis Blues while coaching the New York Rangers. For their involvement, the Blues were fined $250,000. The Detroit Red Wings, who also pursued Keenan, were fined $25,000.
Since then, NHL policy has addressed contract negotiations, tampering provisions, and allowances of teams to request permission to speak to a contracted executive or employee. In this most recent incident, the New Jersey Devils reportedly received permission to speak to Chayka regarding a role with the organization. Per NHL policy, permission from the Arizona Coyotes allows for this interaction. Moreover, according to the Coyotes, Chayka could not meet with other teams to discuss roles that did not include “general manager” or “president of hockey operations” positions. In other words, the Coyotes allege they contracted into terms with Chayka that prevented him from seeking non-lateral moves with other organizations.
From the scarce facts available to the public regarding the Devils’ pitch to Chayka, the process apparently included sending a private plan to pick up Chayka for their meeting. Though it is unknown what Chayka’s future role with the Devils – or with their parent company Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE) – might be, it is clear that the full facts of the situation led Bettman to ultimately side with the Coyotes.
Can Chayka Appeal?
Chayka has the option to take the decision to federal court, like Tom Brady’s appeal in deflate-gate. In that instance, the district court initially overturned Commissioner Goodell’s decision to suspend Brady. On appeal to the Second Circuit, the court reinstated the suspension, claiming that the Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion under the NFL CBA. Here, Chayka’s litigation route is unlikely to produce a different result. If, as the Coyotes have claimed, explicit terms in Chayka’s contract prohibits him from these negotiations with other teams, and Bettman received convincing evidence that these negotiations took place between Chayka, the Devils, and potentially HBSE, there is likely little room to argue Bettman has overstepped his Commissioner’s powers as set out in the NHL Constitution. What's Next?
In the meantime, Chayka is more likely to privately serve his suspension and prepare for his next potential venture with the Devils, or any other organization, beginning at the start of 2022. The ruling concludes a truly rocky breakup to a once-promising hire as the NHL’s youngest ever General Manager. Although we may never know the full story, or if Bettman would ever release his documented reasoning, the decision sets a strict standard of play moving forward between organizations. While the permission rule remains intact for contracted executives to speak to opposing teams, language such as that used in the Chayka-Coyotes agreement should certainly – if not already – become standard practice to prevent any luring tactics from rival franchises.
Matt is a rising 3L at Penn State Law.
 TSN, NHL Suspends Former Coyotes GM Chayka, (Jan. 25, 2021), https://www.tsn.ca/nhl-suspends-former-arizona-coyotes-gm-john-chayka-1.1582608.  See Mike Florio, “Conduct Detrimental” Vs. “Equipment Violation” In Brady Vs. NFL, ProFootballTalk (Aug. 8, 2015), https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2015/08/08/conduct-detrimental-vs-equipment-violations-in-brady-vs-nfl/.  See Rodger Sherman, How Roger Goodell Screwed Himself With Tom Brady's Suspension, SBNation (Sept. 3, 2015),https://www.sbnation.com/2015/9/3/9255401/tom-brady-deflategate-suspension-overturned-roger-goodell-nfl.  Id.  Elliotte Friedman, 31 Thoughts, Sportsnet (Jan. 26, 2021), https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/31-thoughts-dubois-laine-trade-finally-came-together/.  See id.  See id.  See id.  See Elliotte Friedman, Coyotes Owner To Ask Bettman To Adjudicate Split With Chayka, Sportsnet (Jul. 26, 2020),https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/coyotes-owner-ask-bettman-adjudicate-split-chayka/.  See id.  See Sherman, supra note 3.  See NFL.com Staff, Tom Brady's Four-Game Suspension Reinstated By Court, NFL.com. (Apr. 25, 2016), https://www.nfl.com/news/tom-brady-s-four-game-suspension-reinstated-by-court-0ap3000000655649#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20Second%20Court%20of,Championship%20Game%20in%20January%202015.