I was reading a random article last month about the goings-ons at the historic climate change conference in Paris when my eyes stumbled across what appeared to be a fish-out-of-water participant – the National Hockey League. The piece mentioned that an NHL vice president for corporate social responsibility, Omar Mitchell, presented on sports and sustainability. The NHL. Climate change. I had to call the league.
I found Mitchell. He explained from Foxborough, Mass., the site of the league’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic, after giving U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy a tour of the league’s game-day set up. The NHL and the EPA. McCarthy was invited to the game by the league after the EPA awarded the league a 2015 Green Power Leadership Award for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Hockey. Really?
Here’s my conversation with Mitchell about the league’s position.
What was a vice president of the National Hockey League doing in Paris last month speaking at a forum tangentially connected to the historic U.N. climate change summit?
Our game, which is probably unique to most other professional sports, is so tied to the environment. We need cold weather; we need fresh water in order to play. Therefore, our game is directly impacted by climate change and fresh water scarcity. So we developed NHL Green, a mandate to promote this type of awareness across all of our organizations. Over the course of the last five years, we’ve done everything from a food recovery initiative, which was taking all the unused food that we prepare in our arenas and donating it to local food banks … to a water restoration program. All of that culminated in the release of a sustainability report in 2014, which was the first of its kind from any U.S. pro sports league. It’s important to us.
There’s a movement in the sports world that’s really prioritizing sustainability around premier events like the Olympics, like FIFA World Cup, like the Super Bowl and organizations like ours that are really putting this at the forefront. As part of the climate change conference in Paris, there were lots of different industries and organizations talking about how their organization is contributing to addressing climate concerns. Green Sports Alliance, which is a nonprofit organization based in the U.S., has been a catalyst for this movement. Green Sports Alliance is also our principal environmental adviser. They participated in this panel that was called Sustainability, Innovation and Sport. They invited people who are really championing these initiatives to come and speak so that we could share those best practices. So we were very fortunate to be offered an invite to come and speak, and that’s why we were there.
What does the league hope to do? Reduce its carbon footprint or to get global neighbors to reduce theirs?
Right now it’s an internal focus. To show what we’re doing internally can show carbon reductions. As an example, we have a partnership with Constellation Energy. Constellation is a vertically integrated energy provider. That’s a fancy term that just means they not only provide electricity and natural gas to a commercial consumer, but what they do is they actually go in and walk the arenas and say, ‘Look, if we did this and did this and changed the ice plant and optimized the building management system and did a host of other things, we can actually lower energy consumption.’ The reason that’s important is because when we did our study of our environmental impact, that’s 550,000 metric tons of carbon, we recognized that 75 percent of our carbon emissions came from electricity use. That’s typically energy consumption in NHL arenas. So if you really want to target how to reduce power environmental impact, you have to start there, reduce energy consumption in our buildings.
Does the league have any goals or benchmarks?
We did not establish goals because we’re just in the first phase of a much longer process. The first part is understanding where we are. That’s what this first sustainability report was. Understanding what our footprint is before we can understand what tangible goals we can set.
What involvement is there of individual owners, coaches or players in this effort?
A lot of the players are interested. One that comes to mind immediately is Andrew Ference. He’s a self-proclaimed eco-athlete. He really prioritizes this in his life. So he’s a big environmental champion. Our next stage is to engage more players around this issue because when we put out stuff on our social media platforms, 12 million followers on social media, that definitely gets messaging out to fans. But when you get an Andrew Ference, that’s when you get a lot more engagement. We need to educate our athletes on this issue because they grew up on frozen ponds, they get the connection between learning to play outside and environmental issues. They get it. It’s intuitive, without even being environmental. Because while we want to do this as an organization, our hope is that we can at least start the conversation with our 72 million fans. If we drive that kind of awareness, that’s when were going to get the type of impact that we’re going to get in this conversation.
Have you actually seen any loss in the frozen pond environment?
We are in touch with a university in Canada [Wilfrid Laurier University] that is doing a study called RinkWatch. What they are doing is [getting] folks who play on frozen ponds to record the conditions in their local ponds and that way we can get crowd-source information. Then there’s a historical record of that and they can build a database. We hope that this type of collective action will build up that database so we can say definitively whether people are actually seeing ponds freeze later in the season or thawing early.
There was a poll done in 2011 by the Center for Responsive Politics that found NHL owners contributed more to Republican candidacies than NFL owners and far more than NBA owners. Climate change is largely seen as a Democratic concern. Is Commissioner Gary Bettman worried about alienating his base?
I don’t know of the politics of our owners or their constituents. What I will say is this, though. The reason why sports are a really important vehicle for talking about climate change is because it’s so apolitical. We can talk about this message in a meaningful way because it’s about healthy communities, and healthy lifestyles and getting kids out to play outdoors. Sports is an industry that can talk about these issues in a nonpolitical way. Sports is an opportunity to bring everybody to the table whether it’s Democrats or Republicans or whoever.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.