Pro athletes are unique among human beings in that they face retirement while they’re in their 20s, 30s or, at the latest, their 40s. After the shouting stops, what do they do? Many become coaches. Some go into team management. Others go into business.
But only one that I know of becomes a Director of Social Impact, Growth and Fan Development.
That would be Andrew Ference.
During his 16 seasons as an NHL defenseman, Ference won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and served as captain of the Edmonton Oilers. He also became known for his involvement with environmental and climate change-fighting causes — something that was unique at the time.
Retiring after the 2015-16 season, Ference earned a certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Harvard and became an investor in sustainability-related startups before joining the NHL league office last month. GreenSportsBlog caught up with Ference to find out what his new role — and his cool and super-long job title — entails.
GreenSportsBlog: Andrew, it’s great to catch up. Director of Social Impact, Growth and Fan Development…When did you start and what does that job title actually mean?
Andrew Ference: I hit the ground running on NHL Green Month when I started on March 1, working with the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team — Omar Mitchell, Alicia Chin and Paul LaCaruba. It was a smooth transition as I knew and had worked with them during my playing days. That gave me more experience and familiarity with the league office than the average player. The job came up as an extension of my environmental work as a player, as well as my experience on the league’s Joint Marketing Committee and as a representative to the Players’ Association (NHLPA). My role is varied and exciting in that we’re the people who get to look at the long term future of the game of hockey.
Andrew Ference, upon winning the 2016 Green Sports Alliance Environmental Leadership Award (Photo credit: Green Sports Alliance)
GSB: What does “looking at the future of the game of hockey” mean, exactly?
AF: A lot of things. In most jobs, in sports, business, whatever…you’re forced to manage with a short term perspective — the next two weeks, the next quarter. The NHL Corporate Social Responsibility team thinks and acts differently, putting more responsibility in the CSR department. I’ve been tasked with, among other things, looking at what hockey will look like 20, 30, 40 years out. What will the U.S. and Canada look like demographically? Especially with low birth rates meaning that immigration will need to continue to drive population growth. How can we get those new, mid 21st century Americans, especially those in places without a strong ice rink infrastructure, to care about hockey? We’re looking at things like street hockey, ball hockey, and floorball. We’re looking at inner cities in places we haven’t been before. We need to expand hockey as a thing to do.
GSB: What an interesting job! And what is floorball?
AF: It’s a hockey-like game that’s popular in places like Finland and Sweden. It’s embraced more by schools as it’s less dangerous. And we want to work to make it, like the other games I mentioned, a gateway to playing and caring about hockey.
Floorball is one of several sports Andrew Ference is examining as potential gateways to ice hockey (Photo credit: Floorball.org)
GSB: Getting millennials and Gen-Z-ers to care at levels anywhere close to their elders is the holy grail for all sports. So looking at those generations and beyond is not only smart, it is essential, it seems to me. I can’t wait to hear more once you’ve had more time to dig into this part of your job. Let’s pivot from the long-term future to the present. What are you working on, sustainability-wise?
AF: Well, to be clear I had nothing to do with writing of the new sustainability report. That was all Omar and Alicia.
GSB: I know…it was a Herculean effort on their part!
AF: Yes, and Sustainability Report 2.0 did a great job I think, especially on the qualitative side. Going forward, a lot of what we will be working on on the environmental side will be on the quantitative, measurement side to answer the question: What is a sustainable rink? We will be data driven, both with NHL rinks and community rinks. We will take deep dives into water and energy usage, to see where we are and how to improve.
Screen shot of the 2018 NHL Sustainability Report
GSB: Are these data points, water, energy usage and the rest, easy to obtain?
AF: It’s not as easy as you might think, Lew. Twelve NHL arenas are shared with at least one NBA team or a Power 5 men’s college basketball team. What energy and water usage is a hockey team responsible for in those cases? You would think community rinks would be simpler — and many are. But many community rinks in Canada and some in the U.S. are part of a larger fitness center that includes a swimming pool, a gym, and more. In those cases, the same question applies as with the shared NHL-NBA arenas: What is the ice rink’s energy and water responsibility? So we will drill down deep and use the best quantitative tools we have to get the accurate answers we need.
GSB: I look forward to seeing those answers in Sustainability Report 3.0, if not before. One thing that drew my eye in the current Sustainability Report, version 2.0, was the way climate change was called out. How will climate be dealt with by the league in 2019 and beyond?
AF: I don’t see us thumping our chest about climate change. But we will look for and find more ways for our fans to compost at games, have greater access to mass transit and bike valets.
GSB: The NHL certainly has done a solid job at engaging fans who attend games on the environment about energy efficiency, water restoration and more. My question is more geared to fans who consume NHL hockey on TV, via mobile and who rarely or never go to a game. I know Green Week, or this year, Green Month, gets mentioned here and there but that is rare, it seems to me. How will you communicate NHL Green and the climate change fight — while not thumping your chests — to that large cohort of fans?
AF: Storytelling will play a key role in communicating NHL Green, including those related to climate, to our fans who don’t go to games. The good thing is that we have great stories to tell, from what the teams have done and are doing on the environment, to our players’ efforts. And these stories will be driven locally more than on a league-wide basis. Which makes sense to me — you’ve got to care about where you live, after all. That’s what the core of environmentalism is, right?
GSB: Indeed. You mentioned the players. As someone who was in the league not long ago, I imagine a part of your remit is dealing with the current crop.
AF: Yes, part of my job is as a liaison to current players from a community relations point of view. We are letting them know that they don’t have to fit a mold…
GSB: What do you mean by that?
AF: Well, for some players, visiting kids at a children’s hospital is the right thing. Others will feel more comfortable doing other things. We aim to empower our players to engage the way they like by finding out what they’re interested in, what motivates them and then to provide them with the opportunities to engage…
GSB: …Including engaging with environmental issues…
AF: Of course! I want to help the guys find what their things are, in terms of community relations. For me, it was the green thing. The idea is to go beyond what the team and league expect. And the great thing is that hockey guys are, for the most part, very humble, very relatable.
GSB: So with that being the case, and harkening back to your long term mission of growing the game 20 to 40 years out, what can you and the league do to help young people choose to play hockey and also to become fans? In Canada, the NHL is still the biggest thing so maybe it’s easier there. But in the U.S., you’ve got basketball, football. Soccer is growing. Baseball is still a factor, of course. And then there are individual sports as well. Lots of competition.
AF: Great question. I’m a believer that people choose one pursuit over another based on emotion. What feels good. Something you can do with your friends. Maybe a terrific coach inspires you. We’re working with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to emphasize fun, friendships, and teamwork with young players. That’s the way you create memories, that’s the way you create hockey players and lifelong fans.
GSB: I for one hope you succeed because once you get them in, then the younger generations will be exposed to the generosity of the players, the league’s community relations initiatives which, of course, include its myriad of green programs.
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