Can Hockey Save the World?

The NHL and Sustainability Awareness

In October 2015, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency awarded the NHL the 2015 Green Power Leadership Award in recognition of its league-wide sustainability efforts. Additionally, in 2015, the NHL became the first professional sports organization or league to earn a spot on the EPA’s National Top 100 list, as the 17th largest user of green power in the U.S.

The NHL’s recent accolades can be traced back to 2008 when the NHL entered the world of sustainability in the form of a partnership with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

However, the NHL would formally announce their sustainability initiative, NHL Green, at the NHL Winter Classic on January 1st 2010. The NHL Winter Classic features an outdoor game played annually at either a football or baseball stadium and pays tribute to the game that originated on frozen ponds and lakes. The event draws attention to the close connection between climate change and the feasibility of events like the Winter Classic, which require cold winter weather.

The Connection Between Hockey and Climate Change

For many NHL players, frozen freshwater ponds and outdoor ice rinks represent a place where they developed their talent and fell in love with the game of hockey. In the NHL Sustainability Report, Wayne Gretzky reflects on his childhood, expressing that, “From the age of three to the age of 12, I could easily be out there 8-10 hours a day. I would head out and get on the ice before school.

For me that’s what I enjoyed the most: To get on the ice and pretend you were Gordie Howe, pretend you’re winning Game 7, playing for the Stanley Cup.” Wayne Gretzky would go on to become one of the most prolific players of all time and an iconic figure of Canadian culture. The countless hours spent skating on outdoor rinks belong to a common narrative shared by NHL stars and fans alike.

According to a study done by Environment Canada in 2011, there has been an experienced warming of Canadian winters by more than 2.5 degrees Celsius since the 1950s. As a result of these recent winter warming trends, there has also been an observed decrease in the Canadian outdoor skating season. The authors of the study concluded that “the number of viable rink-flooding days could reach zero by mid-century.” Therefore, it could be argued that by protecting the environment and mitigating climate change the League is also protecting its main product- the high caliber talent of its future players.

Aside from preserving the tradition of outdoor hockey, the League’s operational demand for both freshwater and energy resources provides a clear incentive for the NHL to engage in long-term environmental sustainability initiatives. The 2014 NHL Sustainability Report was the first sustainability report issued by a major North American sports league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recognizes the importance of integrating sustainability into the league’s business model in the first-of-its-kind NHL Sustainability Report. He writes that “We believe that this effort is not only the right thing to do for the environment, but also a core strategy for the long-term success of our League.” The report identifies visions and goals for the sustainability of the organization, which involves tracking and offsetting impacts, reducing energy, water, and waste, and supporting environmental programs to inspire environmental progress.

The NHL and Climate Change Action

The NHL is in a unique position to promote environmental awareness and educate the public on the importance of environmental stewardship.

The NHL consists of 30 teams spanning North America. From the Edmonton Oilers based in Canada’s oil patch to the Los Angeles Kings based in a city better known for big budget Hollywood films than ice hockey, the teams of the NHL represent a possibility for the League to engage with a broad and diverse group of people on environmental issues. Sports have the ability to create a sense of community and act as a unifier regardless of socioeconomic status, political views, race, religion, etc. As well, it is not uncommon for sports fans to feel an intense affiliation towards their favorite sports teams and their players. This represents an opportunity for NHL teams and players to act as environmental ambassadors and contribute to saving the heritage of the outdoor game from a warming planet.

During a recent interview with the Washington Post, the NHL Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, Omar Mitchell, emphasized the power of sport to galvanize support on environmental issues. He speaks to the fact that, “The reason why sports are a really important vehicle for climate change is because it’s so apolitical.” As a result, the teams and players of the NHL could serve as effective messengers for climate change action as they can overcome the politicization that has become problematically embedded into the issue of climate change.

Moving forward from the immense progress already made towards “greening the game” of hockey, the NHL has the ability to widen its reach on sustainability by influencing the environmental practices of businesses within its global supply chain. The Green Sports Alliance, led by Allen Hershkowitz, supports major league sports engaging in efforts to green their supply chains. Speaking to an audience at the Sustainable Innovation in Sport forum at COP21, Hershkowitz outlines that the first component of integrating sustainability into sports is to implement changes at the ground level, mainly in the operations of sports venues. Then, “the second component is to change the supply chain of sports, to make venues and governing bodies more conscious of where they are getting their energy, their water, where their food waste is going.”

The NHL has emerged as a corporate leader on sustainability and can influence the companies within their global supply chain, from food providers to clothing merchandisers, to take a similar lead. In spreading sustainability throughout the whole supply chain, the NHL can make a much larger impact with regards to addressing climate change and tackling environmental issues.