07 Apr Concerns about ice, environment spur NHL to fight climate change by thinking green
Save the planet.
This may sound like a joke, at first. What does hockey have to do with environmental policy? Well, for one thing, the game is played on ice. And frozen ponds, where so many of the league’s players learned to skate, are in trouble. The average length of the skating season may shrink by a third in eastern Canada and by 20% in western Canada in coming decades.
That’s according to research in the NHL’s 2018 sustainability report, which will be released Wednesday morning. The report assesses the league’s own environmental impact and its commitment to fighting climate change.
Allen Hershkowitz, founding director and chairman of the Board of Sport and Sustainability International, credits the NHL for using that term — climate change — at a time when the Trump administration walked away from the 195-nation Paris climate accord, and when Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has said carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming.
“It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that the report is coming out when the world is facing the most challenging political climate in the United States as it relates to climate-change policies,” says Hershkowitz, whose non-governmental organization has members in more than 50 countries.
Leagues prefer to stay far away from controversy so as not to alienate even a small number of fans; just ask the NFL, where players kneeling for the national anthem last season caused considerable outcry. But Hershkowitz says climate change is about science, not politics.
Even so, does the NHL worry about disaffecting any fans who may think otherwise?
“What I would say is when we do this work, we try to do it as apolitically as possible,” says Omar Mitchell, NHL vice president for corporate social responsibility, “because at the end of the day, as our commissioner would say, this is the right thing to do.”
More than a dozen federal agencies issued a report late last year that said humans are the dominant cause of a rise in global temperatures that has led to the warmest period in the history of civilization. That report said global average temperatures have increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 115 years.
That’s a period of time that encompasses the rise of hockey. The NHL celebrated its centennial in 2017 — and wants to be around for its bicentennial some 100 years hence.
“How we think about our environment and how we think about sustainability is going to be a critical element in making sure our sport has a future,” says Kim Davis, NHL executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
According to last year’s Environment Gallup Poll Social Series survey, 59% of Americans agreed that protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies, up from 41% who agreed in 2011. And 56% said protection of the environment should be prioritized over economic growth.
The NHL’s report is voluntary. “And what gives the report its teeth is that we did a carbon inventory” of the league’s own environmental impact, Mitchell says. “Hockey is a very energy-intensive sport. Our analysis shows about 66% of our carbon footprint is attributed to energy usage to create an ice sheet. So what we are trying to do is to promote innovations that will lower energy consumption within our buildings.”
The league launched its NHL Green initiative in 2010 and issued its first sustainability report in 2014. Among highlights of this second report:
- The NHL reduced energy consumption 1% from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2016 by using more efficient lighting, enhanced building management systems, waste heat recapture technologies and onsite renewable energy generation.
- The NHL has a waste diversion rate of 32% due to composting, improved concessions forecasting and enhanced waste tracking; half of the league’s arenas compost their own waste.
- The NHL decreased water consumption 7% from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2016 through water-stress solutions including fixture upgrades in arenas and installation of smart sensors in water irrigation systems.
- The NHL reduced CO2 emissions by 2% year-over-year from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2016 through innovations and efficiencies.
- The NHL counterbalanced 963,200 megawatts of energy since 2014 through the investment of renewable energy credits generated from U.S. wind and Canadian biomass.
“The single most important thing the NHL has done is measure, and refine the measurement protocol, for professional sports,” Hershkowitz says. “It can’t be understated how important that is, (measuring) energy use, water use and waste generation at arenas that you don’t own and that you occupy for only a fraction of the time. And making an accurate assessment of your contribution to the problem and then reporting it through protocols that are approved by international certifying agencies.”
The league calls March its “NHL Green” month — and not because of St. Patrick’s Day. The NHL Greener Rinks Initiative was launched in 2016 to measure and evaluate the environmental impact of the roughly 4,800 indoor rinks in North America.
“This community rink infrastructure is typically outdated and older,” Mitchell says. “And because we’re at the top of the ice hockey community here in North America, we want to take a leadership position to advance sustainable best practices” to help operators of these rinks reduce their energy and operating costs to increase access to the sport.
“We can only do so much at the league level and on our clubs and our arena partners to impact our carbon footprint,” Mitchell says. “But if we can influence the 76 million fans who watch our sport, that’s where you’re going to have real change.”
One section of the NHL’s report, titled “Play It Forward,” asks its fans to take a page from the league’s playbook and bring some of the NHL’s sustainability strategies to their lives. The NHL and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation donate 1,000 gallons of water to rivers with critically low flow for every goal scored in the regular season (an initiative called Gallons for Goals) and the league asks its fans to use an online water footprint calculator to estimate their own total water use.
Fans donated 4,245 pounds of used equipment during the league’s centennial year, including helmets, skates and pads. The idea was to keep the equipment out of landfills and get it back into use.
“As we look forward to the next 100 years,” Davis says, “I think this report shows a very keen focus on how do we ensure that our game is an enjoyable family experience for every stakeholder — for kids, for parents, for coaches.”
Scott Jenkins is general manager of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and is also chairman of the Green Sports Alliance, which includes nearly 500 sports teams and venues from 15 sports leagues in 14 countries. The alliance brings together team executives, venue operators and environmental scientists to develop solutions and better practices for the environmental challenges that teams and leagues face. Jenkins says the NHL was the first league to have all of its teams as members of the alliance.
He says sports teams are in favorable position to influence the broader culture on environmental concerns and to show that being environmentally sensitive is good for business.
“We can’t afford to live on the sidelines,” Jenkins says. “We have to get in the game.”
Which brings us back to frozen ponds. The NHL’s sustainability report tells of RinkWatch, which encourages citizens to monitor outdoor rinks and ponds in their neighborhoods. The initiative was launched by researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., in 2013. More than 1,400 rinks and ponds are being tracked today, helping scientists to study the long-term effects of climate change.
“If you trace (hockey) back to the sort of humble beginnings, particularly in Canada, it all goes back to frozen ponds,” Davis says. “A lot of NHL players grew up playing hockey outdoors. It’s such a critical part of the game and it’s important that access remains available for future generations.”