How exactly do you go from small-town hockey ref to scoring a job at the NHL?
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and while certain hiring processes may have changed, the overall advice for connecting with the right people, keeping track of your network, and landing a dream job at the NHL remains the same.
You’ve heard it before. Finding the job of your dreams is ‘all about who you know’. But then you think to yourself, “Great. I know no one. There goes all my hopes and dreams!”
However, Chris Ackroyd is currently covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, as an In-Game Social Media Coordinator for the NHL. His last job in hockey was as a small town referee. And no, his step-brother’s uncle or cousin’s girlfriend didn’t help him get his foot in the door.
Chris grew up as a typical Canadian kid—obsessed with hockey. After high school, he studied Commerce in Sports Administration at Laurentian University and refereed hockey as a way to keep sports in his life. Fast forward through an uninspiring job in the insurance industry, and Chris eventually found himself where he is now, working a job at the NHL.
You can hear all about how Chris got a job at the NHL in this podcast.
What was your job hunt like? Was it as shitty as most new grads?
That’s tough to say because we only hunt for the “first one” a single time.
“I made a list of people I had met along my journey that I thought might be able to give me some insight and push me in the right direction.”
I’m not sure what the standard amount of shitiness is, only what I experienced. I made a list of people I had met along my journey that I thought might be able to give me some insight and push me in the right direction (since I didn’t know which direction was the right one).
And you just asked them all out for a coffee?
Yeah. One of those coffees resulted in someone trying to connect me with someone he knew through another party. Person A asked Person B if they knew Person C, so I could be introduced. It turns out that Person B was hiring and looking for a recent grad, so I interviewed and scored my first job without having met Mr. C.
For The NHL, I had what we’ll call a “regular” interview, followed by a unique take-home assignment. I was tasked with essentially performing the role from home for a night. I watched three games, tweeted updates from a dummy account, and submitted game notes to the hiring manager. Of course, they wanted to get a feel for both my writing style and my understanding of both the sport and social platforms.
If you could sum up what the NHL looks for in most of their candidates, what would it be?
Good people who are good at the job. We get a shitload of applicants for most openings, but there’s no magical formula. Like anywhere else, hiring managers want people who have the skills and experience, and are good people. The NHL isn’t any different from most other companies in that regard.
What experience do you feel really helped you stand out among the competition for your job?
There were two things that helped me immensely in getting hired into my role. The first was a thorough understanding of the game. I played and refereed hockey because I enjoyed doing those things. Ultimately, understanding players, hockey terminology, and even some pretty obscure rules and nuances helped to prove that I know the sport as well as, or perhaps better than, the fans we communicate with every day.
“Suddenly, I had two friends from the hockey world who could both put in a good word.”
Secondly, I don’t find any shame in sharing that it was people that I had built relationships with, who were able to vouch for me. I made myself top-of-mind when a position opened up. Coincidentally, while interviewing, I learned that someone I had refereed with was currently in the role I was applying for. Suddenly, I had two friends from the hockey world who could both put in a good word. There are a lot of people applying for jobs with the skills required on the posting – what do you have, what can you do beyond that?
Your contact at the NHL was a huge help to getting your foot in the door — how do you recommend grads stay in touch and keep track of all those contacts?
This one is strange to me because I feel like I need to keep getting better at connecting with the right people more frequently. There’s no right or wrong way, it’s mainly about asking questions and being genuinely interested in a person, in a role, and in an industry.
“There’s no right or wrong way, it’s mainly about asking questions and being genuinely interested in a person, in a role, and in an industry.”
That first job hunt we talked about? I had a spreadsheet back then – I still have it somewhere. Nowadays when I’m reminded of someone or I cross paths, I make a note to follow up. I ran into a successful friend on the street last week that I hadn’t seen in a year. He was on a call so I told him I’d text him the next day. I did, we chatted, and we’re grabbing lunch. That’s the play. You know the whole “Hey, we should definitely catch up sometime!” conversation? If you really don’t give a shit, don’t even say it. Tell the person it was nice to see them. If you do want to catch up, set a date right then or at least put a reminder in your phone to follow up.
So would you say that job-hunting for you was a lot about who you knew?
Ah, here’s where I think we’ve got it all right and oh so wrong. Yes, it is a lot about who you know. Here’s the shocking reveal though: The list of people you know isn’t fixed.
“You are in control of how many people you know. Most people who know a lot of people have spent time and energy creating relationships.”
When people hear about others getting a job through a contact, they think the hiring manager descended from the heavens and said, “You. Come here, I’d like to pay you.” If someone gets hired by an uncle or their mom’s best friend, cool, good use of your resources. This isn’t usually the case, though. You are in control of how many people you know. Most people who know a lot of people have spent time and energy creating relationships. I always say that the people who are likely to be in the right place at the right time are those that spend all their time in many places. More people = more opportunities.
What would you suggest to grads that don’t have a connection in the place they want to get their foot in the door?
As per above, connect with people who you can learn from. Buy some fucking coffees. Ask some questions. You get opportunities when you ask, not when you cross your fingers or complain because ‘Brian got hired, and you’re smarter than him, and his dad knew a guy, and it’s not fair.’ Like — shut up.
What are your top three tips for new grads who want to be you (aka working at the NHL)?
1) Live in the right space.
Perhaps the one “lucky” piece for me was that I started at or near the top, which is rarely the case. If hockey’s your thing, there are leagues, organizations, teams, agencies. There are players, administrators, officials, scorekeepers. To meet more people, you need to be around the right people who in turn know the right people.
2) Do what you like doing, even if it’s not your job.
You can write, tweet, and interact online with others regardless of what’s paying the bills right now. I’m not a huge fan of the word “hustle”, but there’s something to be said about the “side hustle”. If it turns into something more, amazing, if not, well who cares, you’re doing stuff you like.
3) Connect with people you know, but it’s more important to connect with people you don’t know.
People want to help, and while you have an idea of what existing friends can do for you, new contacts can help you in ways you don’t yet know. It takes balls to reach out or ask for a connection sometimes, but that’s where the rewards lie.
READ MORE: Mastering the Art of Interviewing for a Job
You can follow and connect with Chris on Twitter, and hey, maybe your “luck” to landing your dream job was stumbling upon this article and hearing exactly what you needed to put yourself out there.
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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.