Keeping the Drive Alive

Since joining the CFL in 1954, the BC Lions organization has racked up six Grey Cup wins—one as recently as 2011—and has become a staple of local culture. Besides generating entertainment and championships for its province, the franchise gives back to the community with numerous programs addressing everything from literacy and fitness to railroad safety and domestic violence. George Chayka, the organization’s vice president of business, oversees a staff of 10 in corporate-sponsorship sales, suite sales, and community relations in order to grow the business.

How a career-ending injury helped George Chayka find his calling for the BC Lions

As far back as junior high, George Chayka began dreaming of a career in the CFL. It was there that he became best friends with future BC Lions all-star Rick Klassen. The two played football together at Sardis High School and eventually caught the eyes of both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. They chose Simon Fraser, considered the best football college in the nation at the time, and Chayka established himself there as a running back and defensive back while Klassen excelled as a running back and offensive guard. As they entered their senior year, in 1981, it looked like both players were poised to make their dreams of playing professionally a reality.

Bad luck struck, however, when Chayka broke his leg. The Lions drafted Klassen shortly thereafter while Chayka remained at university, and for Chayka, it was an eye-opening setback. “That was the first time in my life that I had a major goal that I didn’t achieve,” he says. He wanted to make it his last, so instead of giving up, he became a graduate-assistant coach at Simon Fraser in an effort to stay close to the game. And though the window into the CFL looked to be closing, his friendship with Klassen kept it ajar. Instead of a dream squashed, his would simply be a dream deferred—for 10 years, and transformed into something far more charitable.

The uphill climb began in 1983, when it came time to negotiate Klassen’s second contract. Chayka had an idea: who better to be Klassen’s agent than his best friend? Klassen agreed, so with no negotiating experience to speak of, Chayka met with the Lions’ former general manager Bob Ackles and got Klassen the highest-paying contract for a third-year Canadian in the history of the CFL. The experience cemented Chayka’s desire to work in Lions management, but it also blew up his phone with calls from players who wanted him as their agent.

For the next decade, Chayka represented more than 40 CFL players as an agent before finally getting an offer to join the Lions organization as a scout in 1992. The team failed to make the playoffs that year, however, and a revenue shortfall led to the revocation of Chayka’s job offer. Almost immediately, he found his first opportunity to join the team slipping away. Not long after, though, the Lions hired a new president and began looking for salespeople, and though the work wasn’t directly related to football, Chayka jumped at the chance. Within a year, he became the Lions’ top-rated salesperson, bringing in more new business than any other, but unfortunately that 1992 season, with an 0 and 8 start, left the team unable to pay its bills, so the CFL took over the franchise and let its salespeople go.

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Schools that the Lions’ community programs personally visit each year between January and May

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Schools throughout British Columbia that the Lions in the House program will visit, starting in January 2015

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School-based interactive workshops that the Be More Than a Bystander program consists of

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Business leaders in the Waterboys Group when George Chayka started it with former Lions president Bob Ackles to recognize those with a passion for CFL football

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Business leaders in the Waterboys Group today

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Grey Cup rings Chayka has earned while working for the Lions, all without having to play a single down

“I thought, ‘It took me 10 years to get here, and I’m not going to let go,’” Chayka says. He stayed in sales, on straight commission, and continued to sell. A week later, his passion was noted by management, and he was hired back full-time. After that, he was finally able to find a foothold, and in the 23 years since, he’s been involved in just about every position at the football club, from selling tickets, corporate sponsorships, and game programs, to signing player contracts, to overseeing the football-operations and marketing departments.

Chayka, now vice president of business, notes that one of the key pillars of the Lions brand is to make a positive impact on the community. His focus on this pillar has led his love of the game to transcend the football field, pushing him to effect more meaningful change.

At its core, Chayka’s role is to grow the Lions’ business. Typically, this is accomplished through sales, but he also supervises partnership direction for the team’s community-relations arm, and in 2002 the division was imbued with newfound passion when Lui Passaglia, a former Lions player, joined the front office. Passaglia put a strong emphasis on the creation of community programs, which Chayka continues today with Jamie Taras, another former Lions player.

Among other initiatives, the organization started a literacy program for K–3 youths called Read, Write & Roar that still runs today; formed FortisBC Energy Champions, which explains the importance of responsible energy practices to K–7 kids; and started Lions Pride, which works with children and adolescents to keep them out of gangs. Additionally, the Lions in the House program, presented by CN, emphasizes the importance of railroad safety and youth opportunities for learning a trade.

An important recent program, started in 2010 as a partnership with the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, is called Be More Than a Bystander. It uses the influence of the team’s players to stress the importance of respecting women, and it provides the tools, language, and ideas needed to help end violence against women. “It’s really been a program that’s had a tremendous impact, not only throughout the province, but throughout the country,” Chayka says. In fact, three other CFL teams have adopted the program since its inception.

“It’s been a focus of our organization over the last 12 years to build that community connection,” Chayka says. “We’re more than a football team. We’re passionate about helping to build better communities in British Columbia.” Chayka still lives for football, but as luck would have it, the game has helped him become a vital member of his community, and his role has allowed him to introduce and build programs for his community’s betterment. “We’re honoured to be the pride of all BC,” he says.