Green Ice: NHL’s Andrew Ference Inspires Hockey’s Environmental Challenge

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Green IceSportsnet.ca describes Andrew Ference of the Boston Bruins as “Fearless. Displays terrific hockey sense. Can log a ton of icetime. Loves to hit.” He is a leader who takes care of his own end and looks out for his teammates. Off the ice, he extends that same leadership role to his fellow members in the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) by making them aware of their environmental responsibility.

“As a hockey player, we travel to other cities to play other teams, and that adds up to a lot of air travel, and air travel is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide,” Ference, an Edmonton native, tells Samaritanmag. “Stuff you do to ‘go green’ is something I view as a responsibility, something you should do every day and make part of your life. I try to live my life responsibly and do the right things and the environment is always high on my priority list on how I make decisions about what I’m eating and what I’m buying.”

Ference’s awareness of the adverse relationship between professional sports and the health of the planet began when he joined the Calgary Flames in 2003 and had ongoing conversations with well-known environmental activist Dr. David Suzuki.

“He was really the one who pushed me to use my voice as a hockey player and the exposure we get on a public stage,” says Ference. “Hockey only lasts so long and while you have the opportunity to represent something, why not make it something very positive?

Suzuki showed him that by calculating the extensive air travel, ground transportation and hotel energy costs of the average NHL player through the course of a season, each player represents approximately 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, about 50 percent more than the average North American. The doctor encouraged Ference to introduce the idea of going ‘carbon neutral’ to his teammates and then other teams throughout the NHL.

“By going carbon neutral, one person might not make that much of a difference, but with over 500 guys doing it across the NHL, that‘s part of a real solution. The Carbon Neutral Challenge is part of a greater philosophy of trying to do the right thing, but it’s the public arm of trying to live green. And whether it’s a player that starts the spark, or a fan who reads about it, we’re hoping that it might be that first action that starts to make a difference in other parts of their lives.”

Being aware of the environment is not new to Ference.  He recalls being outside a lot as a kid, either playing hockey, snowboarding or exploring in the forest at his grandmother’s farm. In science class, he was interested in the environment and how everything is connected, he says. “I really loved watching shows like [Suzuki’s] The Nature of Things.  So if I sat down with a psychologist one day, they’d probably tell me my interest in the environment sprang from my childhood somewhere.”

Andrew Ference

As Ference grew older, he realized we are responsible for our own actions and on his every day travels would notice certain things that resonated with him.  But he came to one major realization when he went surfing in California. He had ridden waves in other places before where the water was beautiful, but on this trip, he was horrified.

“It was like I was swimming in gasoline,” he says. “That taste was in your mouth and you could feel it on your skin and smell it in the water. So everything looked really beautiful, but it was like swimming in a toxic soup. I knew it just wasn’t right and that the problem was real. Putting chemicals and gasoline in the water we’re swimming in is just wrong. That’s when it hit home. A lot of these decisions we’re making as a society are common sense things.”

Ference began making changes in his own life and was named the Western Hockey League’s Humanitarian of the Year for 1998-99. “In my first couple of years in the NHL, I started taking recycling more seriously, and instead of the truck I had when I came out of junior, I got a [Toyota Hybrid] Prius. I started riding my bike more instead of driving my car everywhere,” he says.

During his time with the Calgary Flames, Ference took his keen interest in the environment a step further. He met with Dr. Suzuki, whose Foundation was formed back in 1990, to “find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world that sustains us.”

Climate change is a serious concern, one caused primarily by carbon dioxide released from utilizing fossil fuels such as gas, coal and oil. One of many things that can be done to counteract these carbon dioxide emissions is choosing to go ‘carbon neutral.’ One of the ways to do that is to purchase ‘carbon offset credits,’ in effect subtracting from your carbon emissions through helping finance clean energy initiatives like solar, wind and bio-fuel projects.

Ference talked at length with Devin Smith, the director of marketing and community relations for the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). “We both agreed that the Carbon Neutral Challenge was great,” says Ference, “but if that’s all that we did, then shame on us. If this was the first thing that some guys did in terms of environmental terms, then we would hope that this would be the snowflake that started the snowball that started the avalanche. It’s far from the end goal, which is where we, the public, incorporate this into our daily lives.”

What began with a handful of his Calgary Flames teammates in 2006-07 grew in scope. The next year, he had the help of the Players’ Association. Although the non-fraternization rule in the NHL is long gone, it would not have been prudent or efficient for Ference to sell the idea to players across all 30 NHL teams as league-wide initiatives don’t tend to go over well when introduced by individuals, but coming from the NHLPA adds credibility to the important program. “We incorporated the Carbon Neutral Challenge into the fall tour meetings where the PA goes around and talks to every single team,” explains Ference.

A short presentation was created and played at each team meeting prior to the 2007-08 season. “It explained what carbon neutral is, why it is important and, as a union, why it’s important for us to speak up,” he says.

There were no expectations for the number of players who might sign up. There was simply a voluntary sign-up sheet for those interested and the ability to process the credit card of those interested. Dr. Suzuki had calculated that the cost to neutralize each NHL player’s carbon footprint at that time was $290.

“We were pretty skeptical, and just like in any business, if you put a new idea out there, there are going to be raised eyebrows,” admits Ference. “It’s one thing for someone who is really interested in it to go ahead and do it, but if you’re new to learning about this stuff or have never thought about it or, frankly, don’t even care, it is something different to be coming at you in a union.

“We thought we’d have 70 or 80 guys [sign up for the Carbon Neutral Challenge], but then we had 520 the first year. Over half the guys [in the NHL] are signing up. Whether it really hit home and they thought it was a good idea or whether they just thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ some guys have taken it to new levels of interest. Some guys are really into it like I am. We have great conversations when we run into them after a game or prior to a meeting.”

What players appreciated most was that the idea wasn’t thrust upon them by the NHL or the NHLPA trying to make the players look good, but rather that it was the initiative by one of their own colleagues. “I don’t know too many other sports that can mobilize players like that,” says Ference.

“We admitted that we are hockey players and not experts in the environmental field, and in the world of carbon credits, there are different qualities. Some are for-profit, some plant trees to offset carbon and some build clean power plants and they have different classes and different ratings. We wanted to make sure we had nothing but the best so we utilized the Suzuki Foundation to find us the best carbon offset provider so that every single dollar that we put in would go towards clean energy projects.”

The Suzuki Foundation suggested Gold Standard carbon offsets — one of many certified standards of quality — which are being purchased for the NHLPA through Montreal-based not-for-profit Planetair. “They gave us a carbon offset provider that had three options: wind, solar and biomass plants that were going to be built in different countries,” says Ference.

In its first year, the Carbon Neutral Challenge was a great success. “We put a lot of work into it the first summer and now it’s kind of taking care of itself and we want to keep it going,” states Ference. “It makes a good public statement about taking the cause seriously and it makes a real difference.

“To me, it’s pretty simple. When you’re a professional athlete and people look up to you, you have a responsibility to represent something. Hopefully, fans see a program like this, think about the issues and try to do more in their personal lives. It’s not changing the world, but it’s a start.”

Kevin Shea is a Toronto-based hockey writer (www.kevinsheahockey.com). For more information on the topic, visit www.davidsuzuki.org.

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What Do Fellow NHL Players Think Of Ference’s Carbon Neutral Challenge?
* comments supplied by the Players’ Association

Robyn Regehr, a teammate of Andrew’s in Calgary, was an early proponent of the Carbon Neutral Challenge, attending one of David Suzuki’s lectures with Ference. “It’s not about changing your lifestyle in the matter of a day,” he said. “It’s about being cognizant that your actions impact the environment.”

“Protecting the environment was very important where I grew up, and this has stuck with me,” said Zdeno Chara, who as a child, collected rainwater for the plants so he could conserve drinking water. Today, the Bruins’ captain rides his bike whenever possible and makes a point of carpooling when he cannot avoid driving. “If you take care of the environment, the environment will take care of you.”

Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks is also environmentally aware. “Growing up, I had the opportunity to enjoy many great aspects of the outdoors, and I want my children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy these same things I did.” Niedermayer drives a hybrid vehicle, takes reusable bags to the grocery store and turns off the lights around his home when they’re not necessary. He also had a radiant barrier installed on his roof to conserve energy.

Steve Montador of the Buffalo Sabres, also inspired by Ference while playing in Calgary and Boston, was instrumental in starting a dressing room recycling program during his days with the Florida Panthers. While playing with the Bruins, Montador walked to practices and games, and at home, he conserves energy by unplugging appliances and turning off lights when not in use. “It feels good knowing that I’m making positive changes in my life that can affect the environment and the people around me.”

Ryan Miller, also of the Sabres, is a convert to being environmentally aware. “Before we started going green, I wouldn’t have made that choice, but it now seems so obvious,” he admitted. “I’m just trying to be a little smarter about my actions.”

“I think it’s a very important thing that what we have to do now is to go green and help the environment,” suggested Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Matt Bradley drives a hybrid vehicle, was involved in putting a recycling program into effect around the arena in Washington, including the Capitals’ dressing room and was instrumental in the team using reusable water bottles. “Little things may not seem drastic and don’t even disrupt your day-to-day life,” he said. “They do add up.”

Willie Mitchell of the Vancouver Canucks commented, “Like a lot of other guys, I’m just trying to do my part.” He drives a hybrid vehicle, invested in wind-powered electricity for his home and chooses locally grown organic foods.

“We have an opportunity to make a difference, not only in the communities we live and work in, but also to set an example for our fans to follow all over the world,” suggested Nick Schultz of the Minnesota Wild.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.