The GSB Interview: The NHL Green Team

The National Hockey League is arguably the leader among North American professional sports leagues in terms of taking substantive action regarding greening its sport. A key reason for this commitment is that many NHL players hail from rural Canada and grew up playing outdoor pond hockey.  That pond hockey heritage, highlighted through the incredibly popular, outdoor NHL Winter Classic games, is at risk due to the effects of climate change that are happening now, in real time.  GreenSportsBlog recently sat down with the NHL’s 3-person Green Team to discuss the league’s journey to sustainability.  The team is made up of Bernadette Mansur, SVP Public Affairs, Executive Director of NHL Green and of the NHL Foundation; Omar Mitchell, Director of Sustainability; and Paul LaCaruba, Coordinator, Public Affairs.

GreenSportsBlog:  When and why did the NHL get involved with fighting climate change?

Bernadette Mansur:  Internally, we can trace it back to a conversation between NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) back in 2008 about the need for the NHL to move aggressively to green the sport (Ed. Note: NRDC is committed to the Green & Sports intersection and Dr. Hershkowitz is the driving force behind that commitment).  Gary was long aware of climate change and also of the unique place pond hockey holds for Canadian-born players and fans. With climate change putting pond hockey under threat, Gary was on board.

Omar Mitchell:  That 2008 conversation between Gary and Allen quickly led to the 2010 launch of NHL Green.  It was introduced at the NHL Winter Classic in Boston’s Fenway Park on New Year’s Day 2010.  The League’s outdoor games, especially NHL Winter Classics, are the by far the biggest, most high-profile regular season event on the league calendar aside from the Stanley Cup Final.

Paul LaCaruba:  Commissioner Bettman saw Boston, with its highly-educated work force and its world-class universities as a logical place to launch.  The league convened a panel with professors expert on climate science from Harvard and MIT to help guide NHL Green’s development.

NHL Winter Classic

2010 NHL Winter Classic at Boston’s Fenway Park (Photo Credit: Boston.com).

GSB:  What were some of the early NHL Green programs?

Bernadette: We started relatively small with Rock & Wrap It Up, a food donation program pioneered by a fellow named Syd Mandelbaum in the 90s to take all prepared but unused food at our arenas to shelters and other places where the food would go to good use and not to landfill.  All 30 clubs took part, starting with the 2010-2011 season.  Thus far, over 210 tons of food have been donated. [Ed. Note: Mandelbaum, a forensic scientist by trade, coupled his love of rock music and his desire to wipe out world hunger by starting Rock & Wrap It Up in 1994.  As of 2010, over 200 million people had been fed through this program.]

Omar:  The league also, through its relationship with MIT, started a “Sustainability Manager” Fellowship with a Sloan MBA student.  The Fellow works with NHL club Facility Managers to share how they can operate more sustainably and more efficiently.  The clubs reacted positively, especially to Rock & Wrap It Up. Sustainability representatives at each club made the food recovery program doable.

Paul:  At around that time, the league instituted monthly sustainability calls that involved representatives from each club and from multiple disciplines–Facilities Management, PR, Finance, even Chief Operating Officers. Sustainability became engrained in the day-to-day operations of every club.

GSB: What were some of the key learnings from “Rock” and the other early efforts?

Paul:  Some programs don’t require much in the way of funding.  Rather, changing the way you think, the way a club does things, can have a great impact without much money being spent.

Omar:  Also starting with a food recovery effort was, in hindsight, a smart way to go in that it got the league an easy win.  No one said no, it was community-oriented, it led to lasting partnerships and, in fact, it was more than green–it was humanitarian.

GSB:  Sounds like Rock & Wrap It Up helped pave the way for the next big NHL Green program, Gallons For Goals.  Tell us about that.

Bernadette:  This is the NHL’s water restoration project and gets to the heart of both the fresh water climate change-pond hockey and fresh water scarcity issues.  We partnered with the non-profit Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) to offset some of our premier events like the NHL Winter Classic, the NHL All-Star Game and the NHL Draft through the purchase of BEF Water Restoration Credits (WRCs) and to engage the fans at the same time.  We did this through Gallons For Goals.  Starting with the 2011-2012 season, the league committed to restoring 1,000 gallons of water to at-risk rivers, like the Deshutes River in Oregon, for every goal scored.  Over 20,000,000 gallons have been restored since then.

GSB: How have the fans been engaged? How have they reacted?

Omar: Gallons For Goals is for the fans.  They are aware of water scarcity issues and that water is in our DNA. And we brought it to the fans–we had a Gallons For Goals exhibit at the 2012 NHL Winter Classic “Spectator Plaza” in Philadelphia.  Fans pledged to reduce water use.  We track our water restoration numbers on the NHL Green website.

Bernadette:  We’re also offsetting the water used at our New York headquarters–which, over two seasons, will amount to 6 million gallons.

Paul:  And we produced a Gallons For Goals Public Service Announcement in 2011 that got a great reception.

Deschutes 2

Deshutes River in Oregon, replenished by water from NHL’s Gallons For Goals (Photo Credit: Bonneville Environmental Foundation (C) 2011)

GSB:  Has the league done research on fan awareness and reaction to Gallons For Goals?

Paul:  Not yet.  Anecdotally the clubs tell us that feedback from the fans has been very positive.

GSB: How have the owners reacted to NHL Green, especially those from cities like Edmonton and Calgary, which are major oil producers?

Paul:   Every owner, from every team has been enthusiastic about NHL Green.

GSB: How about the players?

Bernadette:  One of the great things about the NHL is that we have lots of “genuine guys”.  A majority are from Canada and many of the Canadians are from rural areas and have a strong appreciation for nature.

Paul:  Andrew Ference of the Edmonton Oilers has been amazing on this issue, speaking out forcefully and publicly on energy efficiency and climate change.  When he was with the Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruins in 2011, Ference and teammate Zdeno Chara rode bikes to the games in both Boston and Vancouver during that Stanley Cup Final.

Omar:  LA Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, an avid fisherman from British Columbia, is on the Advisory Committee of Save Our Salmon. And former NY Rangers goalie Mike Richter has gone a different route, from winning the Stanley Cup to starting a solar finance company.

Paul:   Richter’s eyes were opened to this issue when he first got to New York and wanted to go for a training run on a hot summer day and heard on the radio that the air quality that day made running dangerous.  He said “what’s up with that?” and is trying to do something about it.  Scott Niedermayer, a Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup winner, is very concerned about how climate change affects and will-affect his kids.  He is also a WWF Ambassador.

Bernadette: This is why NHL Green works.  Our players, owners and Commissioner Bettman get the connection between climate change and the sport’s heritage of playing outside, on ponds.

GSB: NHL Green is a roadmap other leagues should follow.  We are working to talk with them to see where they stand.

Follow GSB on Twitter @LewieBlau

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