When a high-profile athlete speaks out on a major issue of the day, we take notice: Muhammad Ali and the Vietnam War; Billie Jean King and the fight for gender equality; Michael Sam and LGBT rights. Add Andrew Ference, Stanley Cup winner (Boston Bruins, 2010-2011) and captain of the Edmonton Oilers, to that list. His issue? Fighting climate change.
It’s the last session of late June’s Green Sports Alliance Summit in Chicago. The speaker is taking the audience through substantive and detailed case studies of corporations and sports teams walking-the-green-walk while talking-the-green-talk:
- IKEA, “immersed in sustainability,” helps to fund sustainable foresters and thus lowers supply chain risk in the process.
- DuPont, facing massive criticism in the 90’s for being the US’ biggest polluter, hires a new CEO who sets the sustainability bar high by demanding his managers turn the company into a Zero-Waste enterprise, and, by 2002, waste was reduced significantly.
- Edmonton’s Eskimos (Canadian Football League or CFL), looking to reduce the carbon footprint of fan travel to and from games, provides a meaningful incentive (a game ticket gets you a free ticket on Edmonton’s Light Rail system), which means less traffic and less drunk driving after games.
You might expect that the speaker was a consultant for a sustainability-focused marketing agency. Or perhaps a corporate Chief Sustainability Officer. You would be wrong.
The speaker was Andrew Ference, defenseman, Stanley Cup winner and captain of the Edmonton Oilers. He has, over the past several years, arguably become the active North American team sports athlete most associated with fighting climate change. He brings qualities to this work that are valuable on the ice and in the locker room: Consistent effort, always looking to improve, involving others. GreenSportsBlog had a wide-ranging conversation with Ference while at the Summit to understand what makes him tick, sustainability-wise:
GreenSportsBlog: The work you’re doing in terms of educating your NHL brethren, fans and others about the need to wage a multi-front fight against climate change is exemplary. Why do you think some sports mega-stars like LeBron James have not joined you in this effort thus far?
Andrew Ference: I think assuming we need to chase stars for the climate/environment movement is the wrong way to go about it. There’s no magic answer but we need to start with athletes that do get it and want to lead, whether they are on field/on ice superstars, and provide them with the education and tools they need to engage teammates, sponsors, and fans. Now, one NHL star, Jonathan Toews of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, has expressed a keen interest in sustainability. In fact he reached out to me and then urged his team’s management to pursue greener business practices.
GSB: That’s terrific. But even with Toews, yourself, and other NHLers, anecdotally, it sure seems to me that athletes who make climate change/the environment a cause are far fewer in number as compared to other causes (i.e. cancer, domestic violence, education–valuable causes). Why do you think that’s the case?
AF: Let’s take cancer–if an athlete gets involved with cancer research, he/she can say this research is solving a problem–there’s a tangible goal. Climate change? It’s a much more complicated problem–a set of problems, really–and thus has many more complex potential solutions. Basically, we’re asking people, especially in the developed world, to shift what is “normal”, to change the way they operate. It’s a bigger social project. It’s not about doing a walk or a golf tournament, worthy efforts though those are. It takes time–which takes away from your craft, commitment, study.
GSB: Which makes it understandable that most athletes have not heretofore shown the willingness to make this one of their main causes. Which begs the question: Why and how did you find the time to become knowledgeable about climate change/sustainability? You have the same time constraints as all other NHL players.
Andrew Ference, captain of the Edmonton Oilers and one of America’s leading “eco-athletes”. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
AF: My parents grew up on a farm and instilled in me an appreciation of the outdoors. So I was always curious about nature and then, when I was early in my career with the Calgary Flames, I met David Suzuki, a famous TV personality and scientist in Canada. He challenged me to always do more on this issue, to never be satisfied. So I read a lot, asked a lot of questions. Made friends who were in the environmental field–the company you keep certainly influences the direction you take. And so as I learned more I spoke out more.
Andrew Ference and Canadian TV personality and scientist David Suzuki in a 2011 photo. Suzuki has pushed Ference to do more and be more publicly vocal on the climate change fight. (Photo credit: David Suzuki Foundation)
GSB: And then, from Calgary, you moved on to the Boston Bruins, won a Stanley Cup and, your learning curve on climate change/sustainability became much steeper.
AF: Oh yeah, it was a great city to be in in terms of sustainability, from academic and business and innovation points of view. I connected with cleantech startups–got involved with Greentown Labs (an incubator for more than 50 cleantech hardware startups).
GSB: And you’re taking classes remotely at Harvard?
GSB: Doing homework on long flights to and from Edmonton, I imagine. What is the cleantech innovation community like in Edmonton?
AF: While it’s not Boston, it’s more vibrant than one might think. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and the University of Alberta are both dedicated to the development of new technologies for alternative energy generation.
GSB…Which is somewhat ironic and yet heartening, given that Northern Alberta is the capital of Tar Sands Oil.
AF: Hey, that’s true. What’s also true is that Edmonton has Don Iveson, a very progressive mayor on environmental issues–the city has one of the best waste management systems in North America. And provincially, we just elected a new government, with the left-leaning New Democrat party taking over. They are examining the role of the Tar Sands and how to shift to a future that’s less dependent on them and more on renewables…
GSB: …Wind is certainly a copious resource in Alberta.
AF: Yes, the emphasis will shift to wind and other clean generation technologies…
GSB:…And I suspect you will be at the heart of this shift, both while you take shifts as a player and once your career is over. I have one more question.
GSB: Will the Oilers, with Connor McDavid, the #1 pick of the NHL Draft added to the mix, make the playoffs?
AF: Just like with sustainability, we can’t look too far ahead. First things first and that’s training camp in September.
GSB: Fair enough and good luck this season. And thank you so much for what you are doing and will do for a sustainable future.
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