Finnish exchange student Ilkka Kortesluoma’s path to working for NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers
It was 4 a.m. when Ilkka Kortesluoma first arrived in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The Senior Director of Ticket Sales for the Philadelphia Flyers still remembers stepping off that bus into the fresh middle-of-the-night late-summer Keweenaw air. The late night soon gave way to morning light, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Finnish exchange student began. He finished his last year of university in Finlandia University’s International School of Business. It didn’t take long for the outgoing Finn to fall in love with his new surroundings.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re at home at Finlandia,” he said. “Its welcoming. It’s a good size. It’s a tight-knit community.”
Kortesluoma said he considers himself to be a Finlandia graduate even though he spent most of his undergraduate career at Seinajoki University of Applied Sciences in Finland. That’s in large part because of the Sports Management focus.
“I was swayed to attend Finlandia because of the sports management program and I had classmates in Finland that spoke very highly of their experience while at Finlandia,” he said. “I loved it. I found the curriculum to be very engaging, and it aligned to my interests better than I thought possible. I also made the Finlandia University’s NCAA Division III hockey team. Even though I mainly watched the games from a press box, I made some great friends, and those guys were a big part of my experience at Finlandia.”
Path to Philadelphia
Even before attending FinnU, Kortesluoma had a strong desire to chase a career path in the growing sports management industry. That desire didn’t instantly lead to success, though. Instead it was a long path of low-yield job applications, low-pay and hard work.
While finishing his last semester at Finlandia, Kortesluoma sent his resume and cover letter to 50 or so companies looking for a way to get into the sports industry in the United States. While already back in Finland, he got a call from Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago and was offered a three month summer internship. Kortesluoma moved to Chicago to pursue the opportunity as a marketing intern in Wilson Sporting Goods’ Racquet Department. After completing the internship, it was back to Finland, where he had landed an incredible opportunity. He was able to intern with Helsinki IFK, a hockey team that plays in Finland’s premier professional league. While working that internship he completed his thesis and graduated from Seinajoki.
When the season with Helsinki IFK ended he had hoped to stay on as a full-time employee, but openings at the organization, like many in the sports industry, were scarce. Instead he looked elsewhere, eventually landing a sales job with a sports marketing firm in Helsinki that setup unique hospitality experiences for sports fans in Finland and other European countries. After a short time with the company, his wife, who is from the United States, and he were ready to make the move back stateside.
The couple moved to Philadelphia, and the eager young professional called back to his friends at Helsinki IFK to see if anyone could help him find a job in sports in the area, specifically with the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. As luck would have it one of his former co-workers was friends with a player scout, and eventually he was put in touch with the team’s assistant general manager. It was a start, but it was only a start.
“It took me six months of pure networking, hitting the phones and calling before finally getting an opportunity,” he said. The opportunity wasn’t even with the Flyers, instead it was with the Flyers minor league squad, the Philadelphia Phantoms. He started with the Phantoms in 2008, and after seven months he was given an opportunity in sales with the Flyers. He seized the chance, and after four-and-a-half years with the Flyers another opportunity was presented to him – a director of sales position with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the minor league affiliate of the New York Rangers. The position with the Wolf Pack lasted two years until eventually he got a call from his old team in Philadelphia, who asked him to begin as Director of Sales with the Flyers.
Working in hockey
This season is Ilkka Kortesluoma’s 10th in the professional hockey industry and third in his current role with the Flyers.
“I am fortunate to work for a good company,” he said. “If you do your job, you have opportunities to move up. I love the job. We work long hours, but for me this is more of a lifestyle. I’m passionate about sports business. One of the main reasons I went to Finlandia was the sports management courses, which I had under my belt when I went back to Finland and it was a huge advantage. The people in this industry are good people, and once you get in it’s like a fraternity or sorority. Everyone is similar minded, hard-working and ready to make a difference.”
Advice for Sports Management Majors
Often Kortesluoma is asked to talk with sports management programs and meets with people interested in getting in the field. He gives them all the same message.
“People need to realize this is not a glamorous job,” he said. “They think we hang out with the players and watch the games all the time, but really we’re quite separated from the team. The team practices off site, and we only see the players at special events. I tell every candidate that wants to get into this industry that you’re not going to have success if you’re not going to work hard. It’s a lot of long hours, and it’s certainly not 9-to-5.”
The hours he spends at the job are all over the place, especially during the Flyers season.
“You have to absolutely love it, otherwise you’re wasting your time,” he said. “Often people get into this industry for the wrong reasons, they want to watch their favorite team play or meet their favorite players, but it really doesn’t work like that. You’re running around and making things happen. On the business side, it’s your job to make sure the building is full and your patrons are having a great experience.”
The chances of success, Kortesluoma said, are all about staying persistent, being positive, working hard and then being a sponge by learning from people already in the industry. “Ultimately, it’s about being yourself, being a good person and having a good, positive attitude and taking pride in what you do.”
Ilkka Kortesluoma is Finn Proud
Unfortunately for the proud Finn, he was in Philadelphia working during the centennial celebration of Finland’s independence this December. While he wasn’t actually in his home country for the celebration, he didn’t let that slow him down.
“I plan(ned) to have a great Independence Day celebration here in the states,” he said. “I consider myself to be 100 percent Finn, and I make that known to those around me. I am proud of my country and my heritage, and it mean(t) a lot to me to celebrate this anniversary.”
The young Finn may call America home now, but it’s clear his path was forged by the Finnishness that defines him. From attending the only remaining college in the U.S. founded by Finnish immigrants, to Finns offering him his first opportunity in the sports industry and eventually his fellow countrymen helping him land a job in the National Hockey League, he has a lot to celebrate in his roots.
This article on Ilkka Kortesluoma originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Donor Edition of the Bridge magazine. It has been slightly edited to match with the publication date. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be releasing digital copies of all stories from that publication. Check out more stories for the Bridge at http://www.finlandia.edu/news/tag/the-bridge/.Tags: Hartford Wolf Pack, Helsinki IFK, Ilkka Kortesluoma, National Hockey League, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Philadelphia Phantoms, Seinajoki University of Applied Sciences, Sports Management, the Bridge, Wilson Sporting Goods