Growing up in Chilliwack, George Chayka’s head was solely in the classroom. Born in 1959, the star student excelled academically. He regularly received straight As and even picked up an attendance award. But when he headed to high school, he met someone who would change his life and career path.
Chayka became friends with 2017 B.C. Sports Hall of Famer Rick Klassen.
“I never really played sports growing up,” he said. “My parents came here after the war from Europe and really instilled in me that I needed to get an education.”
However, Chayka was being teased in high school for focusing on his schooling, and his friendship with Klassen led him down a new path. Klassen persuaded Chayka to take up football with him while attending Sardis Secondary School, while Chayka helped his friend do better in his studies.
Klassen, who died of cancer in 2016, went on to become one of the BC Lions’ most famous players – the defensive lineman was named to the BC Lions All-Time Dream Team. After his death, an autopsy revealed Klassen had CTE, a degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
Chayka, who first put on the pads in Grade 11 back in Chilliwack, took to the game immediately. By the time he was ready for graduation, he’d been offered multiple football scholarships across the province. Chayka ended up attending Simon Fraser University (SFU) from 1977 to 1980, playing running back and defensive back for the SFU Clan, while completing his bachelor of business administration degree. However, his dream of being drafted and playing in the Canadian Football League (CFL) came to a crashing halt during one down.
“In my senior year I ended up breaking my leg in the last game of the year,” he said. “I had a plate put in my ankle, and I didn’t end up getting drafted. And that was probably the first time in my life that I’d set a goal for myself, wanting something really bad, and not achieving it.”
One thing Chayka could count on was his friendship with Klassen, who suited up for the Lions twice between 1981 and 1990. Klassen remained close to Chayka while he was playing, and, in 1983, he entered the option year of his contract with the Leos.
“He was emerging as a star in the CFL and the question came up about going into contract talks and needing an agent,” Chayka said. “I said, ‘Rick, why don’t you let me be your agent? Nobody knows you better than me.’”
Klassen agreed, and Chayka headed into talks on his friend’s behalf with Bob Ackles, who at the time was the team’s general manager. It was intimidating, but it also turned out to be a crucial moment in Chayka’s life.
“He probably thought, ‘Who is this kid coming in to talk to me?’ And it’s a funny thing because I remember leaving his office at Empire Stadium, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to work for the BC Lions.’”
It would take a decade, however, before he would get hired by the Lions. His contract negotiations on Klassen’s behalf led him to represent 40 different CFL players as an agent from 1982 to 1992. Chayka held Klassen out of training camp as a negotiation tactic during contract talks, eventually landing him the highest-paid deal for a third-year Canadian at that point.
Then, in 1992, the Lions came calling, and Chayka figured he would become the director of Canadian scouting. But the Lions missed the playoffs that year and the job offer dissolved.
He did, however, get an interview with Lions president Frank Gigliotti for an opening in the business and sales division. Chayka said he was just happy to get a foot in the door.
Gigliotti was sold on Chayka during the initial interview process when he asked him where he saw himself in five years.
“One of the reasons he said he hired me is because I said I wanted his job,” said Chayka. “And he said, ‘Loyalty is important to me, but I want people around who want my job because it means they’re doing a good job, and I’m doing a good job.’ So that was always something that stuck in my mind.”
The Lions went 0-8 to start the 1992 season, ending up 3-15.
That lamentable showing forced the franchise into receivership, and the CFL took over ownership of the club. Chayka was asked to stay on straight commission because the league looked to cut expenses to keep the franchise afloat.
To start the 1993 season, the CFL welcomed three American franchises in a bid to re-energize the Canadian game and expand the CFL’s fan base south. But it was a short-lived foray. The league reverted to Canadian-only teams by 1996.
Chayka said his initial time with the Lions was “tumultuous,” but he stuck it out, noting the franchise had six different owners during the first six years he worked for the club.
“I thought to myself, I’d wanted to work for this organization for 10 years, so I wasn’t about to go and quit,” he said.
In 1997 David Braley took over the club’s ownership, providing what Chayka said was a sense of stability.
However, Braley publicly stated this year that he wants to sell the team, which would end two decades of his ownership.
Chayka has climbed the corporate ladder with the Lions over the years, working as director of marketing and vice-president of both football and business operations. He became the team’s vice-president of business in 1995.
Dennis Skulsky, the BC Lions president and chief executive officer, said Chayka’s best asset has always been his love for the game of football.
“He’s an extremely competitive person,” Skulsky said. “As I often say, when you’re in pro sports, it’s all about winning. You need to deliver results, that’s what it’s all about, and I think George gets that.”
Chayka said his day starts at 4:20 a.m. with a trip to the gym, where he reads all the local newspapers, seven days a week. He said he enjoys the unpredictability of working in professional sports and that the challenges remain fresh.
Attendance and viewership have been down in the past few seasons for many CFL franchises, but the BC Lions’ problem is one affecting the entire North American sports landscape as online viewership cuts into gate revenue.
Regardless, Chayka said he enjoys the ever-shifting outlook and is certain the team will continue to be a local staple in B.C.’s professional sports landscape.
“No two days are the same,” he said.
“And in professional sports, you go through cycles; we’ve had some good times and tougher times.… We’re not at the top of the mountain, but we’re climbing the mountain.” •
Inside information: George Chayka
How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer by Herb Greenberg, Harold Weinstein and Patrick Sweeney
First album bought or music downloaded:
When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up:
As a kid, being my own boss. As a teenager, becoming a pro football player
Profession you would most like to try:
Toughest business or professional decision:
Not sure about the toughest, but one of the best decisions for our club was to form a partnership with Ending Violence Association of BC that created our Be More Than a Bystander program to help end violence against women. This program has had outstanding influence in working with our youth and helping to implement social change on the importance of respecting women and changing attitudes toward women
Advice you would give the younger you:
You don’t need to achieve it all at once
What’s left to do:
Continue to build the BC Lions brand and CFL brand and fill my other hand with Grey Cup rings