Growing up as a hockey-obsessed kid in a small New York suburb, there was no single event to which I looked forward more than The Day the Lake Froze Over.
For most of my hockey-playing years, I had the great fortune of living across the street from a large lake (Lake Mahopac), and a short drive from a smaller pond (Teakettle Spout), the latter of which attracted a disproportionate amount of pickup hockey talent. I still remember rushing out the front door on Saturday mornings to check the integrity of the ice — “Solid enough to skate on?” — or waiting for the inevitable phone call imploring me to get down to Teakettle because a game about to get underway. None of us who gathered on those lakes and ponds took for granted the free ice-time we were afforded, but I don’t think any of us considered that these opportunities might, some day, disappear.
This same spirit — that of the eager kid entertaining his or her professional hockey playing fantasies on the local lake or pond — animates much of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) first Sustainability Report, which was released last week. The NHL’s report is the first of its kind in major professional sports, and its scope and ambition are impressive. Hopefully, the work the NHL did on its inaugural report will set the tone for the rest of professional sports and encourage the other major leagues — the MLB, NBA and NFL — to follow-suit.
Sweet Emotion: What the report does right
The future of hockey is directly threatened by global warming and the declining availability of frozen lakes and ponds. The NHL recognizes this and the report is at its most compelling when it makes the importance of environmental sustainability into an issue that is deeply personal to the league’s past, present and future players. This emotional connection gives the report an added dimension, one that goes beyond the usual “Here’s how we’re impacting the environment, and here’s what we’re doing about it.”
Take, for example, the introductory statement by league Commissioner Gary Bettman:
The NHL represents the highest level of hockey in the world. But 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. 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.
That’s a powerful statement, and it is supplemented throughout the report by quotes from some of hockey’s living legends — Bobby Orr, Owen Nolan, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Richter. Each explains in personal terms the pivotal role access to lakes and ponds played in their development, both as players and individuals. Orr notes that, whether he was skating or fishing, his free-time as a child was spent on the water. Nolan points out how “[g]etting outside” has always helped his “peace of mind.” The Great One admits that, from the ages of 3 to 12, he spent “eight to 10 hours a day” on the ice. Richter calls “[t]he beauty of a frozen lake . . . more than free ice time; it is freedom itself.”
Yet, as Richter notes in the report’s afterword, a recent study published by the Institute of Physics’ Environmental Research Letters: “Researchers found a 20 to 30 percent decrease in the length of Canadian skating seasons over the past 50 years.” The practical hockey-specific consequences of this are real. According to Richter, “The world’s largest natural frozen skating rink had to close before March 1, making its skating season a much-abbreviated 28 days.”
The NHL and water use
While the future of the sport depends on access to (frozen) water, the NHL is contributing to the resource’s depletion. According to the report, most of the water used in the league’s hockey arenas is devoted to ice-making, landscaping, cooling, plumbing and food service operations; total annual water use by all NHL clubs is more than 321 million gallons, which translates to almost 250,000 gallons of water per game.
So, what are the NHL and its constituent teams doing about it? For one, the league is now, for the first time, tracking and analyzing water use. This will allow it to better understand the gravity of the problem and how best to solve it. Second, since the launch in 2011 of its “Gallons for Goals” initiative, for every goal scored during the regular season, the league has pledged to restore 1,000 gallons of water “to a critically dewatered river.” According to the report, by the end of the initiative’s inaugural season (2011), the Gallons for Goals program restored more than 6.7 million gallons of water. The league claims to have donated ~20 million gallons since the program’s launch.
Individual teams and their arenas are also working to minimize their water usage, mostly by retrofitting or replacing bathroom fixtures — sinks, urinals — with more sustainable models. For instance, the report highlights the Florida Panthers’ BB&T Center, whose sink retrofitting program “decreased restroom-sink water consumption by close to 75 percent from baseline consumption,” and the Los Angeles Kings’ Staples Center, “where all 178 conventional urinals were replaced with waterless urinals, for total annual savings of more than 7 million gallons of water.” On the more creative end of the spectrum is the Winnipeg Jets’ MTS Centre, which now uses “reverse osmosis to filter water instead of treating it chemically.” This system produces “demineralized water that is free of impurities and typically forms into a harder ice surface. Pure, hard ice requires less maintenance, flood water and refrigeration energy, and also saves on wear of the ice resurfacers.”
Tone deaf? Where the report comes up short
So what does the report do wrong? Well, I’m loathe to criticize a first effort that is so ambitious and, at least in appearance, so emotionally tied to its sustainability programs. I’m especially hesitant where said report is the first in its “industry.” Yet, while I admire the NHL’s focus on how warming and water scarcity impact the league’s own future and the future of its players, there’s literally nothing here about how these issues are threatening the lives of actual human beings, plants and animals.
One could certainly read the report as a bit tone deaf in this regard. Minimizing water usage, for instance, isn’t really about ensuring the development of star athletes — it’s about human health. According to The Water Project, for example, “nearly 1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access” to clean drinking water.
And should melting ice really be made into a sports issue? After all, global warming’s impact on ice sheets — which, as they melt, lead to rising sea levels — “could bring about disastrous effects for people and wildlife.” In places like the Arctic, this means that polar bears, whales and other species are being forced to alter their feeding and migration patterns, “making it harder for native people to hunt them,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Moreover, “along Arctic coastlines, entire villages will be uprooted because they’re in danger of being swamped.”
Of course, these environmental problems are well-documented, analyzed and discussed by experts (like the NRDC) and other stakeholders, and nobody is looking to the NHL for new information on the effects of global warming. Yet, it would have been nice to see the league at least acknowledge that there are other consequences of global warming that don’t necessarily have anything to do with ice skating.
Image credit: Flickr/michaelrighi