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On thin ice

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The National Hockey League is worried that global warming will melt nature’s ice rinks and damage the growth of its sport.

Frozen ponds used by young hockey players around the world are melting faster and faster, the NHL said in a “sustainability” report issued on Monday with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading player in Washington’s climate wars.

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 It’s the first sustainability report of its kind by a major sports league and highlights how the NHL sees climate change as a direct threat to the next generation of hockey players.

“We need winter weather,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in the report.

While all major sports leagues are taking steps to make their facilities more environmentally friendly, the NHL’s sustainability report is one of the most aggressive statements ever by a professional sports league on climate change.

“The roots of our sport are based on our players having frozen ponds to play on,” said Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s director of sustainability.

“We want to take a leadership position in this because our commissioner believes that we have a responsibility as a business organization to respond to climate change because of the direct impact that it has on our sport,” Mitchell said. 

The NHL put out the report, despite the divisive political climate on global warming.

Mitchell wouldn’t comment on the politics of climate change, saying the NHL doesn’t look at the issue through a political lens. 

“Certainly climate change is a very political issue, but we at the league are always constantly looking at this issue in terms of our sport,” Mitchell said. “We recognize that where we can have an impact is in our clubs and with their venue partners, promoting this message for fans across North America.”

The NHL says “freeze thaw cycles” are growing unreliable, and that with warmer winters, there are fewer “naturally occurring frozen ponds.”

Mitchell said these changes could severely impact hockey’s growth.

The NHL began working with the NRDC on climate issues in 2010, when it launched NHL Green, which began with a panel meeting of leading academics, business leaders and other climate experts to discus how the league could respond to climate change at the 2010 Winter Classic.

The Winter Classic is an outdoor hockey game that takes place every New Year’s Day. It’s one of the biggest moments for the NHL on the calendar, as the event generally gets widespread media attention and showcases hockey being played at its highest level against a background (at least sometimes) of falling snow.

Past games have been held at Boston’s Fenway Park, Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium and Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

The NHL has also held outdoor games in warm weather cities like Los Angeles, which shows it doesn’t have to be cold for the league to put on a show outside.

Still, the league argues global warming is putting outdoor events at risk.

This new report is a compilation of all the work and data NHL Green has tracked down since that first meeting in 2010. It is the first time the NHL has disclosed its carbon footprint, which amounts to roughly 530,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. 

One NHL game will emit 408 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equal to about 900,000 gallons of gasoline. That also equates to 56 pounds per attendee, not including a fan’s transportation to the game. 

The report dives into different projects each hockey arena or club has taken to reduce its footprint. Clubs have installed on-site solar panels, more efficient lighting and have reduced energy usage. 

NRDC scientist Allen Hershkowitz, who worked directly with the NHL on the report, said if he had to nail down the top three leagues on climate change action it would be the NHL, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

“That being said, this is the most important statement ever issued by a pro sports league on the environment,” Hershkowitz said. “This is going to get global attention.”

He argued that climate skeptics in Washington would have a harder time attacking the NHL than the Environmental Protection Agency.

For its part, the NHL sees the report as the first stage of a longer journey that will push fans to get involved with environmental stewardship, and outline the new technology arenas that could be used to better mitigate the league’s impact on the climate.