Updated: September 30, 2022
Without ice, there can be no hockey.
That’s the key reason why the National Hockey League has committed to taking a leadership role on environmental issues.
“A lot of our players and alumni were interested in environmental sustainability,” explains Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s sustainability director and vice president for corporate social responsibility. “They were the ones that came to the league and spoke to the commissioner and our senior leadership about why this was important to them.”
One key voice that helped drive the NHL Green agenda was former goaltender Mike Richter, who won a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994.
After his retirement from the NHL in 2003, Richter was accepted to Yale University to complete a degree he had started at the University of Wisconsin as a student-athlete nearly two decades earlier. Richter graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in ethics, politics, and economics with a concentration in environmental policy. He has gone on to build a career in the field.
“When it comes to global warming, the roots of my sport are far more affected than some other sports,” Richter told the EPA Blog in 2015.
The frozen ponds and lakes of North America where the sport was born freeze later and melt earlier lessening the opportunity to participate. The ‘free ice’ which is truly free – being able to bring your skates and just walk up and play – is going away. The great history of this old sport, of kids skating down the St. Lawrence River or having a pond in their backyard where they didn’t need to pay to play because this was their arena, is going away.
The NHL launched its Green Initiative in 2010. Mitchell came on board in 2012, with a mandate to build out the initiative to promote sustainable business practices and build awareness.
In March of 2018, the league brought sustainability further to the forefront by expanding its annual NHL Green celebration from one week to a full month for the first time.
The Vancouver Canucks have realized significant cost savings by converting to LED lighting at Rogers Arena.
Rogers Arena is home to the Vancouver Canucks. Al Hutchings has worked behind the scenes since the doors opened and is now the senior director of arena operations. “When we opened in 1995, (sustainability) wasn’t a very big goal,” he admitted. “It wasn’t thought of on a day-to-day basis. Over the last few years, probably since 2010, it has become more of a focus for us.”
Green goals at Rogers encompass everything from saving energy to composting and recycling.
“We’re probably 90 percent converted now to LED lights,” said Hutchings. “That’s in team spaces, office spaces, concourse spaces, parking.”
Those conversions have been done over the last two years, in conjunction with the introduction of an Energy Optimization System (EOS) that’s the first of its kind in North America for any facility, not just in sports. Both initiatives are already saving real dollars for arena operator Canucks Sports and Entertainment.
“(Breakeven on) the LED lighting was less than a year, so we’re already on the plus side of that,” said Hutchings. “The Shift Energy EOS program was also less than a year, so we’re well clear on that mark too.”
Up next at Rogers: the installation of LED lights over the ice surface itself. About half of the NHL’s 31 teams have already made that change and Mitchell says they’re not just saving money — they’re also improving their product.
“Because (LED) is such a white light, it’s optimal for hockey because we want our playing surface to be bright white. These LED lights can, on average, save between 30 and 40 percent on energy consumption relative to the (old-style) high-intensity discharge lights (HIDs).
Omar Mitchell is the NHL’s Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility and oversees the league’s NHL Green Initiative.
“Those are the types of things that you explain to the facility operators. You can show them the return on investment; you can show them the benefit to the experience in-arena as well as the benefit to the game-viewing experience on TV, which is what our broadcasters like. The colours on the uniforms pop.
“It’s also a player safety thing. You can see the puck and there are no shadows. It makes the viewing much better.”
As part of its Green Initiative, the NHL has compiled and released two Sustainability Reports — one in 2014 and one earlier this year. With benchmarks now established, the league was able to announce measurable improvements in environmental metrics between reports, including a 1% reduction in overall energy consumption, a 7% reduction in water consumption and a 32% waste diversion rate.
Initiatives in the wide-ranging Sustainability Report reach far beyond the walls of NHL arenas.
- The NHL Greener Rinks Initiative aims to help operators of aging community rinks learn from and implement environmentally-friendly sustainability initiatives as implemented in modern-day NHL arenas.
- RinkWatch is a research initiative launched in 2013 by two professors from Wilfred Laurier University. The NHL has thrown its weight behind the program, where participant-scientists are asked to track and monitor backyard rinks, ponds, and winter weather conditions to assist with the study of long-term impacts of climate change.
Back at the league offices, “Myself and my team, we think of ourselves as internal consultants to our clubs,” says Mitchell. “We share these best practices to our arena partners, so they can learn about the innovations, products and technologies that are out there.”
That can also involve information-sharing between teams. For example, the Canucks have been leaders in waste reduction: their zero-waste initiative has delivered an 80% reduction in waste since it was introduced in 2012.
During a recent visit to Vancouver by the NHL’s senior manager for corporate social responsibility, Alicia Chin, “We went through what we’re doing and what she could show some of the other teams, and then she gave me some of the practices that the league is doing,” said Hutchings.
The Vancouver Canucks’ tri-sorter units have helped reduce waste by 80% at Rogers Arena.
“A lot of it was to do with how we’re handing our waste and the mundane details of how we sort — how the fans are sorting with our tri-sorters, whether they’re on board with doing the initial sort, and then how we do the dirty job of looking at every bag that goes out of the arena and sorting. Not sexy stuff, but stuff that has to happen.”
Of course, the benefits of conducting Green business stretch beyond the bottom line. They also add value to brands that are beloved by fans.
“Sustainability is not always about saving money,” emphasizes Hutchings. “Some of these things cost money but they’re the right thing to do. They’re what the fan wants us to do, so we’re doing them.”
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