How do you “green” the NHL? Cut down on the games!


“In the US, only 16 per cent of citizens follow science,” says Allen Hershkowitz, president of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), the biggest environmental association in sports, consisting of 320 teams and venues in 20 leagues across 14 countries. “But 71 per cent of people follow sports.  If you want to reach a lot of people, this is right where you need to be.  Many of the climate change deniers in the US attack climate scientists, but they cannot attack the commissioner of the NHL or the NFL, or the MLB, because these are iconic organizations that have enormous reach and fans from all across the political spectrum.

The dust from COP21 has now settled and it is time to get to work, or at least give the appearance of doing so. For those of you who don’t know, COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties to the 1991 United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change) was held in early December in Paris, and a landmark multilateral agreement was reached in order to combat global warming. The goal is to ensure that the world will not warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius because beyond that point, to put it simply, a lot of people will be under water and/or (excessively) water/food deprived etc (read the full report here).  While the actual results of COP21 are debatable, what did not receive a lot of attention in Paris was the role that sport plays in environmental sustainability. Sustainable Innovation in Sport was at COP21 representing sports’ interests in battling climate change, as was Omar Mitchell, VP of Corporate Responsibility for the NHL, who asserted, “The challenge for all of us here today is to make sure that people understand that if we don’t stop climate change, then we will not have sports.”  In 2012, I provided a brief look at the NHL Green initiative, but I think it is timely for us to take a closer look at what hockey is really doing to fight an issue that the League claims is pivotal for the sustainability of the sport.

The most ardent green sports activists argue that, while awareness creation is key to the role of sports, the industry itself is far more important because of how far its tentacles reach:

“The operations at sports events reverberate throughout the supply chain,” says Hershkowitz.  “All industries support sports either as a supplier or a sponsor in one way or another: the food industry, the textile industry, the plastics industry, the chemical industry, the energy industry…So when professional sports says, ‘We would like climate-sensitive products, we would like climate intelligent operations,’ that is noticed throughout the chain, and it’s noticed more effectively than if Greenpeace says it. Greenpeace is viewed as being an environmental advocate, but sports is just looked at as a politically neutral operation trying to do business.

There is so much going on in that quote that we should unpack, such as the position of sport as a “politically neutral operation”, but we have done plenty of that in other articles on Hockey in Society, so let’s first take a step back and find out more about Allen Hershkowitz.  He used to be a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and he now runs the Green Sports Alliance (GSA).  He is the mastermind behind LEED certified stadiums, food recycling programs, and renewable energy advances in the sports industry worldwide.  The key to Hershkowitz’s success? He makes business pleas rather than moral ones.

If we went to CFOs and were like, ‘We want to talk about global warming,’ they’d be like, ‘Get the fuck out of here,'” he says.  “It was all about business and the bottom line.” He recalls some pro football exec telling him, “Allen, I know just by the way you look that I disagree with everything you stand for – but I like working with you because you save us money.”

He started by tackling Major League Baseball, which was the first pro sports league to partner with the NRDC. At this point, almost every team in the MLB has green initiatives for their Club and stadiums, in addition to fancy data collection systems that help with monitoring and enable best practice sharing. After that, Hershkowitz managed to get the NBA, the NHL, Major League Soccer, the US Tennis Association, the National Lacrosse League, and Aussie rules football to sign on for green initiatives. The three pillars of the GSA’s mandate is to: (1) change daily operations for the purpose of efficiency and energy/waste reduction, (2) alter the supply chain to improve consciousness about where their water and energy are coming from and where their waste is going, and (3) engage and educate fans about their behavioural options.  These are certainly commendable pillars to adopt.

Bringing this back to COP21, the typical hockey talk about the need for frozen ponds was used to connect hockey with nature: “We need winter weather, and we need fresh water in order to have frozen ponds freeze.”  The NHL is touted as a leader in this respect, being the only (North) American sports league to release its own sustainability report.  It also became the first US sports league to partner with an energy provider in Constellation Energy.

“Constellation were a green company that wanted to show to their consumers that they were going green and they wanted to do that by partnering with the NHL,” Mitchell explains. “As part of that partnership, they offset the league’s carbon footprint, through the purchase of renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets, and they help our clubs promote energy efficiency in their buildings.”

Now, carbon offsets.  This is the green smoke you blow in people’s faces when you don’t really care about being “green”, but realize that you can’t do nothing either.  Carbon offsets are exactly what they sound like: in order for you to make up for the pollution you create, you pay someone else to reduce their carbon footprint, then we call everything carbon neutral. The problem with the notion of “carbon neutral” is that it “says little about how local ecosystems were potentially disrupted in the preparations for” such activities in the first place (Wilson & Millington, 2015).  Additionally, what defines an “emission” and it’s equivalent “offset” are far from simple calculations.  For example, when private jets call themselves “carbon neutral” you had better raise an eyebrow.  As Fred Peace writes for The Guardian in his critique of “green private jets“: “Gulp if you will, but arguably this is the logical outcome of the carbon offsetting business. It means the filthy rich can maintain their lifestyles while buying virtue at a cost few of them will notice.” In other words, carbon offsets are like saying, “well my neighbour walks to work, so I can drive my Hummer and together we are carbon neutral.” Make no mistake, carbon offsets are not a sustainability solution provided by environmentalists and climate scientists, rather they stem “from politicians and business executives trying to meet the demands for action while preserving the commercial status quo.” And, the status quo is precisely the problem; it is why treating environmental degradation as good business was fine to get the conversation started but we are quickly closing in on its limits.

In the NHL’s Sustainability Report, it states that “Through the acquisition of RECs [renewable energy certificates] and carbon offsets the NHL became, in 2012, the first of any North American professional sports league to join the EPA’s Green Power Partnership Leadership club, a voluntary program that encourages organizations to buy green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with purchased electricity use.”  And, elsewhere it claims “In 2012 and 2013 the League’s purchase of RECs and carbon offsets created a benefit of more than 38 million pounds (17,236 metric tons) of avoided emissions of carbon dioxide, comparable to taking approximately 3,591 cars off U.S. roads for a year.”  Travel accounts for approximately 20% of the NHL’s carbon footprint, so “In 2012 the League purchased 584 metric tons of verified emission reductions – also known as carbon offsets – to counter-balance emissions resulting from all Club air travel during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.” In fact, there is a section in the Sustainability Report called “Offsetting Impacts” and it talks about how the NHL spends a lot of money on things like water restoration certificates to “help fund the replenishment of North American rivers with more than 20 million gallons of water.” These offsets are business speak for “we bought the ability to pollute and/or continue business as usual.” That might fly with shareholders and/or fans but, to nature, virtue doesn’t have an exchange value.

Photo from Tumblr.

Photo from Tumblr.

In addition to these measures, the NHL instituted a Food Recovery Initiative and the NHL Green Winter Classic in 2010, the Water Restoration Project and a partnership with Energy Star and Wastewise in 2011, and a Legacy Tree Project in 2012 (read about the problem with using tree-planting as carbon offsetting from the David Suzuki Foundation). In 2011, the League won the Beyond Sport, Sport for Environment award. Another example that is highlighted in the report is how the Toronto Maple Leafs have reduced their landfill waste by 74% by converting food waste into wastewater (learn more about wastewater here). These are all laudable attempts to reduce the carbon footprint of professional hockey, but what I don’t see is a move to reduce the consumption of hockey itself.  Yes, you read that correctly.

According to its own reporting, 75% of the NHL carbon footprint (and my guess is that this measure does not include the manufacturing of their products in China and elsewhere) comes from electricity use.  The second largest impact comes from Club travel, followed by natural gas usage, and lastly HCFC (e.g. ice refrigerant), water, and diesel usage take up the smallest sliver of their pie chart.  As a result, my concern with most of the NHL’s initiatives is that they don’t ask the players, fans, or teams to greatly alter their daily practices – they merely ask them to shift their practices.  As Naomi Klein explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate (sorry, no page number because it was on an e-reader):

Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic – indeed, they encourage us to go out and buy more new efficient, green cars and washing machines….Consuming less, however, means changing how much energy we actually use: how often we drive, how often we fly, whether our food has to be flown to get to us…

Consequently, “business as usual” and cutting costs, will only get us so far – only so green. A perfect example of Klein’s argument that green consuming merely shifts consumption inside the marketplace is the NHL’s example of the Montreal Canadiens providing priority parking spots for hybrid cars at the Bell Centre. We aren’t discouraging driving or the need for energy itself, we are merely asking people to go buy another and/or different car.

Dr. Brian Wilson (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Brad Millington (University of Bath) (2015) refer to this new breed of “environmentalists” as sport management environmentalists (SME) characterized by the following features:

  • They openly acknowledge that sport-related activities have negative environmental impacts (unlike climate deniers)
  • They respond to environmental concerns using a “sustainability” approach. In other words, SMEs lump the environment, social issues, and the economy together.
  • SMEs prioritize collaboration with other stakeholders (e.g. Greenpeace, governments, NGOs etc.)
  • They promote technological solutions to environmental problems (i.e., LEED certified stadiums, more efficient machinery etc.)
  • They support voluntary and gradual forms of regulation

One interesting problem with this new breed of “environmentalists” is that they agree that the environment is a viable concern, which leads to very little discussion.

Environmentalists: “You need to consider the environment in your operations.”

Sport: “Okay!”

This may seem like an environmentalist’s dream scenario but it’s hard to have an argument, or even a meaningful conversation, with someone who agrees with you; and, a  dialogue is necessary here because both sides are operating on fundamentally different foundations. SMEs operate on the assumption that “consumption can become ‘cleaner’ and ‘greener'” (Mol, 2003; Spaargaren & Mol, 1992) but never question the act of consumption itself; in other words, ramping down is never considered, which is precisely what people like Klein are trying to promote. The approach of environmental modernization, as discussed by Wilson and Millington, assumes that economic development and environmental sustainability can be compatible, even though consumption is exactly that – consumptive. Moreover, there is the argument that “more efficient technology may allow for or inspire more overall consumption” because consumers assume that the technology itself is a sufficient offset.  For example, those who own eco-efficient cars may drive more, or we may end up using more paper because it can be recycled.  The NHL talks about mitigating it’s carbon emissions and exploration of energy-efficient opportunities, as it should, but if you really want frozen ponds year after year we have to admit that these initiatives are not enough. It’s like changing from one defensive strategy to another when you are already losing.  You’re still going to lose. What we need is an offensive strategy, now.

I am not saying that the work or organizations like the GSA is useless or that the NHL sustainability report is merely “greenwashing”; however, these efforts can give the illusion that recycling programs, for example, are the best that we can do, when in fact they are the least we can do.  These initiatives need to be the first step towards more radical measures because, if anyone was paying attention at COP21, our current band-aid approaches are far from sufficient.

So here is my suggestion to NHL Green as to how it can make a real impact on its carbon footprint and defy market logic in order to truly be a leader in climate change: cut the NHL schedule by…let’s say 4 games. That suggestion is free of charge but if anyone actually makes this come to fruition I would appreciate a tweet (@courtneyszto) for credit.  That means 78 game seasons for 30 NHL clubs; a total reduction of 60 match ups from the schedule.  It’s a radical idea, I know, but so was wearing helmets at one point. Klein argues that reducing our consumption is the one solution that doesn’t require a technological revolution or breakthrough; it is something we can do today. So let’s do it!

Photo from

The 2014 Sustainability Report lists 408 metric tons of CO2 emissions per game and 247,746 gallons of water per game.  Cutting the schedule by four games reduces those numbers to zero.  Is there a better benchmark than zero where environmental degradation is concerned?

Asking us to consume less is the easiest way to make the greatest impact.  Usually, when I write things, I am asking you (the League) to do more: more about domestic violence and rape culture, more about the narrow confines of hockey masculinity, more about diversity, more about concussions. This time, I am asking for less. You don’t need to set up a new program, hire new staff, create a new webpage or anything else associated with your other initiatives.  This move instantly cuts down on Club travel emissions (the report cites that the average Club logs 130 hours on the plane each season = 3,136 metric tons of CO2), it means thousands of cars not travelling to the game, thousands of water bottles that won’t end up in “recycling”, less food waste, less energy and electricity usage. Consuming less means you don’t have to recycle, or create wastewater, or buy carbon offsets. It also has the added benefit of more rest for your players.  Rested players = better and safer hockey.  Furthermore, as a fan, I don’t particularly enjoy watching my Vancouver Canucks play our “division rival,” the Edmonton Oilers, five times in a season, so feel free to cut out one of those games if you are looking for somewhere to start.

Admittedly, this suggestion would be far less feasible for a league like the NFL to implement because every game is of huge consequence. But c’mon NHL, NBA, and especially the MLB, you can stand to delete a few from the schedule. You might be thinking “but that’s less money for us.” True. But it also reduces your costs – fewer wages, smaller bills, less work.  And, as your own representatives have stated, you need fresh water, frozen lakes and clean air in order to make money.  Less is definitely more where the environment is concerned. So whenever you (the fan, the employee, the player) see companies and leagues rolling out new initiatives that attempt to fix something on the back end, if you are truly concerned about this flying rock that we inhabit and/or the sustainability of pond hockey, ask them to do less – not more.

Four games is a random number that I have chosen because it is relatively insignificant for the NHL as we know it; however, the environmental impact from those four games and the symbolic significance of working to reduce consumption are priceless. The vision for the NHL’s sustainability efforts is to “inspire millions of fans, partners and stakeholders” and to “remind the hockey community how connected our game is to the environment”.  So what do you say NHL Green? Are you willing to put your green where your rhetoric is? Take the lead and challenge other leagues to follow suit.

“Without a transformation of the profits-first way of producing goods and services and extracting resources, the road to climate justice runs straight uphill.”

Duncan Cameron, Rabble

Photo by Me.

Photo by Me.


Works Cited

Mol, A.P.J. (2002). Ecological modernization and the global economy.  Global Environmental Politics, 2(2), 92-115.

Spaargaren, G. & Mol, A.P.G.  (1992). Sociology, environment, and modernity: Ecological modernization as a theory of social change.  Society and Natural Resources, 5(4), 323-344.

Wilson, B. & Millington, B. (2015). Sport and environmentalism.  In R. Giulianotti (ed.), Routledge Handbook of the Sociology of Sport (pp.366-376).  Oxon: Routledge.




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