NHL Warns Climate Change Could Put Hockey in Penalty Box

The hockey league's first sustainability report underscores the threat global warming poses to the outdoor roots of the game.

Glauco Ulcigrai - Flickr
Glauco Ulcigrai - Flickr

Climate change threatens plenty of things, from polar bears to coral reefs. Now the National Hockey League says the sport could be endangered too.

On Monday, the NHL released its first sustainability report, part of the league’s effort to get a handle on the energy and environmental aspects of pro hockey. One of the conclusions? By leading to shorter winters, thinner ice, and truncated outdoor skating seasons, global warming could choke the game’s future lifeline and keep potential Gretzkys and Lemieuxs cooling their heels.

"Before many of our players took their first stride on NHL ice, they honed their skills on the frozen lakes and ponds of North America and Europe," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the report. "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."

The link between climate change and hockey’s future has been steadily strengthening. In 2009, the Nuclear Energy Institute inked a sponsorship deal with the Washington Capitals largely meant to promote nuclear power (which has no greenhouse gas emissions) to beltway power players. Pointing to melting lakes and ponds, the nuclear lobby said climate change potentially threatened the game’s development.

Six years ago, the NHL and other professional sports leagues started working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, to implement more sustainable business practices. In baseball, for instance, that translates to fewer high-wattage stadiums, fuel-efficient vehicles to ferry scouts around the country, and an aggressive recycling campaign.

It also means delivering a green message to a wider audience. Hockey’s 68 million fans in North America, for instance, cover the political spectrum. Environmental advocates are always seeking strong public relations cudgels to budge cultural attitudes toward climate change. They see the mass appeal of pro sports — and, in this case, one game’s very vulnerability — as an ideal tool.

"We need a cultural shift in how people relate to the planet, and do you think that’s going to happen because of a National Academy of Sciences report?" asked Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist at NRDC who co-founded NHL Green, the league’s sustainability program, with Commissioner Bettman.

"Getting nonpartisan organizations to embrace the reality of climate disruption and say, ‘Well, this thing really matters to us as a business and ethically’ — I think it has a huge influence," he said.

Plenty of prominent players, both active and retired, are believers. Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference helped start a voluntary carbon credits offset program to make up for the environmental effects of league travel. Former New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter (who now runs an energy efficiency firm) brandishes scientific research documenting how Canada’s outdoor skating season is shrinking.

"As fans, we must remember that we rely on nature to provide us with such perfect conditions for hockey in its purest form," he said in the report. He recalled growing up in Philadelphia, where "[i]ce time of any sort was hard to come by, so when the ponds froze over, my world began."

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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