The NHL Just Dropped the Gloves on Climate Change, Ice Roads Risk Missing Playoffs

The winter road from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray. Will ice roads miss the playoffs in seasons to come?

The winter road from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray. Will ice roads miss the playoffs in seasons to come?

This week, the National Hockey League released its first ever Sustainability Report, and dropped the gloves on climate change. This was also the first ever climate change report by a professional sports league, period. The report had some damning words about the effect that it could have on hockey itself.

“Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates,” said commissioner Gary Bettman, in what is surely the first time he’s ever opened his mouth that I, for one, didn’t want to boo the man. “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.” 

Dr Allen Hershkowitz of the National Defence Council goes on to hype up the importance of the document in an introductory letter to the lengthy report:

You are about to read the single most important document about the environment ever produced by a professional sports organization,” “This document is an important reminder to all sports fans, leagues, teams and businesses that while natural hockey ice might be the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to the effects of climate change on sports, the effects of climate disruption are a challenge to all leagues and businesses, and we must take meaningful action to reverse course.”

While most of the report touts goals and accomplishments of the league, its 30 hockey clubs, and its corporate sponsors (ie Honda, Bridgestone, Pepsi, etc), at once patting itself on the back and committing to better track and reduce energy and water usage (among others), the fact that the NHL has signalled out climate change at all as a real threat is of interest. Now, if only our “hockey loving” Prime Minister would do the same, eh?

As a hockey enthusiast here in Winnipeg, I have noticed that I’m generally not getting onto any outdoor ice until January — early December if I’m lucky. This is something that Motherboard’s Canadian Editor, Ben Makuch, also took note of in his post about the Report:

Obviously most games aren’t played outdoors anymore, but I can attest that the Canadian outdoor skating season has decreased significantly since I was a kid. In the 90s I started playing pond hockey in late November, nowadays, you hope for January. Barring the latest winter, one of the most frigid and truly Canadian winters in recent memory, outdoor rink hockey is increasingly rare.

Kendrick Cardinal, ice road trucker and hockey player in Fort Chipewyan.

Kendrick Cardinal, ice road trucker and forward hockey player in Fort Chipewyan.

For our third issue of One River, Many Relations, I spoke with Kendrick Cardinal of Fort Chipewyan. Kendrick works maintenance on the ice road connecting Fort Chip to Fort Mac in the south, working eight to ten hours a day during the ice road season, from mid-November through to the end of March. If climate change poses such a big threat to outdoor hockey, what could it mean for those who rely on ice roads for work, supplies, and remaining connected during the winter?

“I’m not sure too much how it would affect the winter road,” Kendrick told me. “Maybe we couldn’t get it started until a couple weeks later. We build the ice for the road, make it thicker and thicker, so I don’t know that it would have too much of an effect on transportation.”

But when it came to outdoor ice for hockey, Kendrick agreed that you now have to wait longer to get on the ice these days.

“Last year our hockey wasn’t until way later, damn near December,” he said. Kendrick tells me he plays forward, and that every year Fort Chip hosts a Memorial Tournament, bringing teams from Hay River, Fort MacKay, Fort Mac and more for the competition. “Usually we can play end of November. We only played for about two and a half months this year.”

And this on top of a year where Kendrick told me that the ice road lasted a couple weeks longer than usual.

So it’s not just in the southern areas of Canada that we’re watching our outdoor hockey season disappearing on us, as the NHL report speaks of, but in the North as well. Pretty damning evidence, and a shame. Skating on outdoor ice is something that everyone in Canada should get the chance to do at some time.

In the end, while the NHL’s Sustainability Report is a step in the right direction it does raise some, errr, green flags. The energy consumption of the league alone is pretty staggering. Even with their goals of reducing consumption in as many areas as possible, the numbers are pretty mind boggling (take a look at some of this highlight reel here, courtesy of PressProgress). Ben Makuch pretty much hit the nail on the head in his article, when he wrote, “Though the report is commendable from a major sports league that isn’t being forced to explain their environmental record, you wonder if it’s a publicity operation.”

kendrick hockey 2What do you think? Have you noticed that the season for dependable, outdoor ice has indeed shrunk over your years living in the north? How does, or could, that affect your daily life? Let us know in the comments below. Game on!


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About Sheldon

Sheldon Birnie grew up in Dawson Creek, BC, and received a bachelor of environmental studies from the University of Manitoba in 2011. He lives in Winnipeg, MB, where he is a freelance writer, and the editor of the Manitoba Eco-Journal.
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