Andrew Ference was at the beginning of his NHL career when he met Dr. David Suzuki, who hosts a TV show in Canada. The conversation with the award-winning scientist changed the life of the young defenseman.
Ference told Suzuki about all the ways he’s environmentally responsible at home. The famous environmentalist responded with a shrug.
“I was really patting myself on the back, and he just kind of looked at me and said ‘So what?'” Ference recalled. “He’s like ‘Are you telling anybody about it? Are you inspiring other people to do it? Here you are, a hockey player in Canada and you have such an opportunity to stand for something good. I mean what do you do?’ And I didn’t have an answer.”
The push from Suzuki inspired Ference to become one of the leading voices in the green movement in sports. The captain of the Edmonton Oilers started an initiative with the NHL Players Association to encourage his colleagues to go carbon neutral. He spoke in schools about the virtues of composting and renewable energy, and studied sustainability at Harvard.
Decades after he collected bottles to take to the recycling depot for money while he was growing up in Edmonton, Ference participated in an NHL panel at the fifth annual Green Sports Alliance Summit this week. He gave one of the keynote addresses at the conference attended by business and sports leaders across the country.
“Things have moved fast here in the last decade of people’s awareness of sustainability,” the 36-year-old Ference said. “Nobody used that word a decade ago. It wasn’t just a common thing to use in everyday conversation, let alone corporate talk. And so the hockey world just kind of (came) along with the rest of the world.”
What was once a small conversation about how sports affects the environment and vice versa has turned into an organized wave that influences the plans and construction of major sports venues around the country. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped create the Green Sports Alliance in 2010, advises the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and other leagues on green issues. The Green Sports Alliance has about 300 members.
“This movement is growing in membership. It’s growing in influence,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, the president of the Green Sports Alliance.
The NHL launched its green platform in 2010, and Hershkowitz said it has developed into “arguably the most robust leaguewide environmental program of any sports league or federation in the world.” It focuses on increasing the energy efficiency and lowering the carbon footprint in each of its buildings, and engaging with fans and corporate and marketing partners in a substantive way.
“We are a sport that traces its roots to frozen ponds and cold climates, and while most of our games are played indoors now, the fact is the future of our game we believe depends on sustainable environmental practices,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Omar Mitchell, the senior director of sustainability for the league, said the NHL counterbalances its carbon footprint through the purchase of renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets as part of its partnership with Constellation, an energy company. Mitchell declined to disclose the cost of the RECs and offsets, but the NHL’s energy program is believed to be the only one of its kind among the major North American sports leagues.
“That’s our way of saying that we recognize what our footprint is, we recognize that we do have an environmental impact, and this is one way of mitigating those impacts,” Mitchell said.
While sports leagues, teams and venues have come a long way — “From an environmental perspective, it is the golden age of stadium and arena design,” Hershkowitz said — the industry still has a significant environmental impact around the world. Huge crowds at sports events produce a variety of environmental issues, and other concerns range from transportation for teams to simple care of the fields.
Two major topics at the summit in Chicago were food and transportation. The NRDC and GSA released a report highlighting increased sustainable food options at several major sports venues. There also was talk about partnerships between teams and public transit outlets.
“The systematic approach and the strategic approach that many sports people undertake are keep working and plugging away with the back-office operation at the same time making those public ones visible as long as you’re doing them the right way,” said Dr. Michael Pfahl, an associate professor in the department of sports administration at Ohio University.
Cost and access are two of the biggest problems when it comes to the green movement and the sports industry. While those are common problems, Hershkowitz thinks sports can be a positive force for change when it comes to environmental infrastructure.
“Are the sports venues the deciding factor in whether a city adopts a recycling ordinance or develops a composting facility? Probably not,” he said. “Is a sports facility the deciding factor in having a city invest in mass transit? Probably not. But does the market and local influence of a prominent sports team, professional sports team or collegiate team, is that noticed by city planners? Absolutely