Image: Wikimedia Commons
We know climate change is melting icebergs, threatening to swallow New York City, and burning half of Northern Canada—it’s even threatening the very existence of ice hockey and the NHL.
At least, according to the commissioner of the top hockey league in the world.
In its 2014 Sustainability Report (the first ever by a major sports league), commissioner Gary Bettman paints a grim picture for the future of the sport, citing the threat of climate change as a devastating development for a game that traditionally relies on cold temperatures and fresh water.
This folksy Bobby Orr quote even makes it into the report.
“Before many of our players ever took their first stride on NHL ice, they honed their skills on the frozen lakes and ponds of North America and Europe,” said Bettman, an often reviled character for NHL fans. “Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates. Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors.”
Obviously most games aren’t played outdoors anymore, but I can attest that the Canadian outdoor skating season has decreased significantly since I was a kid. In the 90s I started playing pond hockey in late November, nowadays, you hope for January. Barring the latest winter, one of the most frigid and truly Canadian winters in recent memory, outdoor rink hockey is increasingly rare.
But besides the nostalgic attachment to pond hockey, Bettman brings up a good point: Those rinks serve as integral talent incubators for northern Canadians and Europeans. That being said, indoor rinks are starting to spring up all over the US and the Americans are still producing top end talent.
On top of that, climate change, as he puts it, could seriously threaten the wealth of freshwater the league has come to rely on for their own rinks.
“We have a vested interest in this cause. As a business, we rely on freshwater to make our ice, on energy to fuel our operations and on healthy communities for our athletes, employees and fans to live, work and play,” he said.
But the NHL is a business and there’s a very real business threat in warmer temperatures and less snow. The marquee event for the league, the Winter Classic, is not only an outdoor hockey game—but a cash cow every holiday season for the league.
“To continue to stage world class outdoor hockey events like the NHL Winter Classic, NHL Heritage Classic or NHL Stadium Series, we need winter weather,” said Bettman flatly.
In other words, while Bettman begins with the postcard imagery of outdoor rink puck, climate change really will affect the financial health of the league if it loses its annual moneymaker. Especially since the whole appeal of the Winter Classic is a return to hockey's natural environment, outside of the LED lights and recycled air of arenas. But that just might be the future of the sport, anyway.
The report sets out sustainability goals on waste and water management, along with energy usage, while highlighting things like how NHL fans are eleven times “more likely to RECYCLE glass, plastic or paper.” It also presents a series of case studies on arenas across the league.
Though the report is commendable from a major sports league that isn’t being forced to explain their environmental record, you wonder if it’s a publicity operation.
The report addresses the obvious question of water usage surrounding the production of NHL ice. Unlike other major North American leagues, the NHL creates an artificial environment for every game—which comes at a cost. And the result is a lot of water being sprayed on ice surfaces millionaires then play hockey on.
According to the report “12,000 to 15,000 gallons of water to create an NHL regulation ice sheet” with some rinks now using reverse osmosis to purify the water used in ice creation to cut down on waste. For its efforts, the NHL says it donates six million gallons of water to critically endangered rivers.
NHL water consumption stats, from the report.
This isn’t the first time the league has taken on the environmental cause, either. Since 2010, the NHL has implemented the “NHL Green” campaign meant to encourage teams to reduce environmental footprints at arenas and on the road.
The report takes time to point out the great environmental work of players like Andrew Ference and pats the league’s back for being trailblazers in eco-friendly sports and entertainment. For example, Bettman and co single out several arenas and league franchises for adopting green initiatives: the Colorado Avalanche for giving preferential parking spots to hybrid cars, the Minnesota Wild installing bike racks for fans all around its arena, to more serious things like the Montreal Canadians installing energy efficient LED lights in the Bell Centre.
Ultimately, it’s undoubtedly a piece of green-advertising raising the profile of the league among fans and increasingly environmentally conscious consumers. And let's face it, there's nothing the NHL can do now to stop melting ponds or critically endangered rivers, because the future of hockey is indoors.