ice hockey at risk due to climate change A\J Photo © iofoto \

Many sports fans in Canada and the United States are eagerly anticipating the upcoming outdoor NHL games this season. The outdoor games are a huge success for the league and this year’s showcase event, the Winter Classic featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, will take place on January 1, 2014. However, it’s worth remembering that for Canadians in the prairies, southern BC, Ontario and Quebec, climate change may soon make natural outdoor hockey impossible. Our national pastime may be relegated to indoor rinks: David Suzuki has called outdoor hockey “an endangered sport” and has stated that the outdoor skating season could disappear in some regions in under 30 years.  

But live indoor hockey games can have significant environmental impacts. In most cities, one must commute to the venue by car or bus, creating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The venue itself consumes vast amounts of energy as it is both cooled and heated simultaneously and illuminated by hundreds of lights, releasing more GHG emissions. Snacks and drinks served in disposable containers throughout the game contribute to solid waste, which is often self-evident once the third period finishes and fans leave their seats. The use of hundreds of toilets and sinks by fans creates wastewater that must be treated. Meanwhile the players themselves routinely fly across the continent during the regular season, a far cry from the days when the Original Six teams travelled between cities exclusively by train.

Despite these environmental challenges, hockey leagues and other sporting endeavours are working to improve the ecological impact of sport. Most of North America’s professional sports leagues, including the big four (basketball, football, baseball and hockey) have partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to help develop green initiatives. The NHL launched “NHL Green” in 2010 to promote league-wide initiatives, and this approach is being duplicated by the NCAA in the US. Meanwhile, the Green Sports Alliance is a collaborative, best practice-sharing initiative that has been adopted by seven leagues, 92 teams and 116 venues. UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability, which helped design facilities for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, is an avenue for academics to help reduce the impact of large sporting events

Sports leagues still have a long way to go to achieve sustainability. Many teams have taken sustainability measures for cost-saving reasons first and foremost, so once the low-hanging has been picked will teams strive for continuous improvement, like their athletes do on a daily basis, or stop when the going gets tough? There are signs of encouragement, including a new ISO standard for Event Sustainability Management Systems (ISO-20121) first launched in 2012 for the London Olympic Games. Most notably, renowned football (soccer) club Manchester United has been externally certified to the new standard. Much like ISO-14001 has influenced environmental management systems, this new standard should help drive continuous improvement; whether it is widely adopted remains to be seen. LEED certification is trending amongst new sports facilities; for example the Top Five Sports Facilities list can be found here.

A major issue for consideration is facility citing. Poorly located facilities outside urban centres will inevitably generate more GHG emissions as people drive to games. One can contrast the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. The ACC is within walking distance of the downtown core and adjacent to commuter rail, busses and subway links, which also boosts the downtown economy as people flock to bars and restaurants before and after games. Canadian Tire Centre is instead a typical suburban facility, with hectares of parking lots and limited connections to the city itself. Ottawa examined the possibility of extending the LRT to the arena but deemed it unfeasible. 

In order to preserve the typical Canadian’s way of life and leisure we will have to pressure sports teams to continue to reduce their environmental impacts. If our favourite hockey teams show that they care about the future of outdoor hockey, those responsible for broader policy changes may be more likely to make the larger emissions reductions that will be necessary to curb climate change – and allow the Winter Classic to continue.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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