The GSB Interview: Andrew Ference Goes from the Ice to the NHL Front Office; Sustainability and League’s Long Term Health His Remit

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

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

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.

 

Report at a Glance

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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Turnabout Is Fair Play: GreenSportsBlogger Interviewed for Chester Energy and Policy Blog

It was fun to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer as Matt Chester, of the Chester Energy and Policy blog, chatted with me about where Green-Sports is now and where it needs to be.

 

Thank you to Matt Chester for using his blog as a forum to promote the importance and promise of Green-Sports. It was a pleasure to talk with him about the biggest success stories of the Green-Sports world (NHL, Forest Green Rovers), the most pressing challenges (how to meaningfully reduce fan travel-related carbon emissions, getting coverage for Green-Sports issues, etc.) and where things will go next. Click here to read the interview.

 


 

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NHL Issues Its 2nd Sustainability Report: Environmental Performance Improvements vs. 2014; NHL Green Goals — “Innovate, Transform, Inspire”

Four years ago, the NHL became the first pro sports league to issue a sustainability report, one of many examples of its environmental leadership. Why has the NHL made such a strong commitment? The report said it best: “Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity. The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of the [NHL’s] history and culture.” At that time, the league reported on its water and energy usage, carbon emissions and its conservation efforts.

On Wednesday, with the publication of its substantive, engaging and accessible 2018 sustainability report, the NHL provided a detailed look at how it performed on a variety of environmental metrics since 2014 and sets out how it plans to improve going forward. The goal is to ensure that all levels of hockey – from frozen ponds to community rinks to the NHL – thrive for future generations. To make good on that objective, the league promises to innovate, transform and inspire.

 

“What is the greenest sports league?”

I get that question a lot from folks outside of the Green-Sports ecosystem.

My response has always been the same and without hesitation: “The NHL.”

Why? The league:

  • Launched NHL Green in 2010, a comprehensive environmental sustainability program addressing the effects of climate change and freshwater scarcity on the sport.
  • Became the first in North America to have carbon neutral seasons by offsetting all of its direct carbon emissions starting in 2014
  • Started the Greener Rinks Initiative, providing managers of many indoor ice rinks in North America with the tools to operate in more environmentally friendly ways
  • Issued, in 2014, its first sustainability report, the first ever produced by a North American professional sports league.

I could list many more but you get the gist.

The NHL, which celebrated its centennial in 2017, takes a very long view when it comes to environmental sustainability. According to Omar Mitchell, the league’s vice president of corporate social responsibility, “We are working to make sure we ensure that we have hockey for the next 100 years. That’s why ‘Green’ is integral to our DNA.”

 

omar

Omar Mitchell, NHL’s Vice President of Corporate Responsibility (Photo credit: Claire Greenway/Getty Images Europe)

 

That big picture approach to sustainability becomes crystal clear as one navigates through the NHL’s second installation of its sustainability report.

The 2018 version is imbued with the ethos expressed in a pledge the NHL made last September’s in its Declaration of Principles, stating that: Hockey should be an enjoyable family experience; all stakeholders – organizations, players, parents, siblings, coaches, referees, volunteers and rink operations – play a role in this effort. To Mitchell, this is much more than a statement: “It is our way of stating our values. We believe hockey improves lives and communities.”

 

NHL Sustainability Scorecard: Improvements in waste diversion, energy usage and more

The report provides the reader with a detailed scorecard illustrating the league’s — and its 30 teams’ — performance over the last few years on a variety of environmental metrics, including water restoration, landfill reduction, efficient electricity use, and more. Highlights include:

  • Waste diversion rate of 32 percent thanks to composting, improved concessions forecasting, and enhanced waste tracking, with half of NHL arenas currently composting their own waste. The NHL has set a goal to increase waste diversion to 50 percent within five years.
  • A one percent reduction of energy consumption from Fiscal Year (FY)14 to FY16 by using more efficient lighting, enhanced building management systems, waste heat recapture technologies, and onsite renewable energy generation.
  • An approximate seven percent decrease in water consumption from FY15 to FY16, through fixture upgrades in arenas, minimizing consumption in water towers, and installation of smart sensors on water irrigation systems.
  • Throughout the NHL Centennial year, fans donated 4,245 pounds of equipment (more than 2,000 items), including helmets, skates, and pads. This equipment avoids landfills and gets repurposed back into the community.
  • A two percent year-over-year reduction in CO2 emissions from FY14 to FY16 – from 189,503 to 182,355 metric tons – through innovations and efficiencies.
  • 963,200 megawatt hours of energy counterbalanced since 2014 through the investment of renewable energy credits, generated from U.S. wind and Canadian biomass.

 

Bringing sustainability to community rinks and pond hockey lovers

The NHL’s Greener Rinks Initiative, a program launched in 2016, is prominently featured. With approximately 4,800 indoor ice rinks across North America, the initiative measures and evaluates their environmental impact. Modern-day NHL arenas use more environmentally-friendly energy sources, including solar power, fuel cell technology, waste water recapture and reuse, and geothermal technologies. NHL Greener Rinks aims to help rink operators make similar, sustainable business decisions in their aging community rinks (average age: 30 years) while also reducing energy and operating costs.

The sustainability report also shines a welcome spotlight on RinkWatch, a research initiative launched in 2013 by two professors from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. The program brings together citizens from across North America who share a love for outdoor hockey. Participants track and monitor backyard rinks, ponds, and winter weather conditions to assist with the study of long-term impacts of climate change. To date, more than 1,400 outdoor rinks and ponds have been tracked and monitored. Fans are encouraged to participate; those interested can visit RinkWatch.org to join the movement.

 

Creating a Sustainability Report that is accessible for fans, substantive for sustainability “deep divers”

Have you read a corporate sustainability report? I have. And let me tell you, some of them make corporate annual reports seem like light reading. And I’m a sustainability metrics nerd!

Thus, I was a bit nervous before clicking on the new NHL sustainability report. The one major criticism I had of its 2014 predecessor was that it was hard to follow as it was laid out in the “continuous scroll” format  in vogue at the time. I felt like I had to scroll forever to get to a desired topic area.

So I was immediately heartened upon seeing that the 2018 sustainability report had done away with continuous scroll and replaced it with what I call an accessible site map structure in its “Report at-a-Glance” page.

 

Report at a Glance

Screen shot of the 2018 NHL Sustainability Report’s “Report At-A-Glance” navigation page

 

Eureka! I wanted to see where climate change fit into the league’s efforts and plans. There it was, “Frozen Ponds & Climate Change,” third from the top in the Home section. Interested in how the NHL is doing in its carbon emissions reduction efforts? Check out the “Innovating the League” section, second item from the top. And so on.

“Moving away from ‘continuous scrolling’ was intentional on our part,” shared Mitchell. “Taking feedback about the readability of our 2014 report to heart, we spent a lot of time with Scrum50, our marketing agency, to develop a ‘Choose Your Adventure’ approach. This resulted in a report that is at once broad enough to engage casual fans in understanding what the NHL is doing on the environment and detailed enough for sustainability practitioners and the like to take deep, analytic dives.”

 

NHL’s First Green Month

The 2018 sustainability report comes out at the same time as the NHL is launching its first Green Month. “The last two years we had ‘Green Week’ but found out that was not enough time to do it right,” offered Mitchell. “Our clubs now have the time to activate meaningful fan engagement programs.”

 

A 30 second NHL Green Month video from the Anaheim Ducks about the environmental performance at their Honda Center arena

 

League needs to measure fan awareness of NHL Green

It says here that the one major area the NHL can improve upon in its sustainability reporting is to get a baseline measure of fan awareness of, and interest in, NHL Green and then track it over time. To my mind, this should be done ASAP — don’t wait three or four years until the next sustainability report is issued. Keeping score as to how NHL fans react to NHL Green will help the league tweak and improve upon its environmental efforts on the fly.

And when I say fans, I mean all NHL fans: those who attend games, and the far bigger number who don’t set foot in an NHL arena but who follow the sport on TV, online, via mobile devices, etc.

 

Innovate, Transform and Inspire

What will a 2022 NHL Sustainability Report look like?

It’s (way) too early to get into that conversation but, says Mitchell, the league’s direction for NHL Green is clear.

“Our sustainability missions now and going forward are to innovate, transform and inspire. Innovate means we will continue, at club and arena levels, to improve on water and electricity use, waste reductions, and more. For example, we have a goal to have installed energy efficient LED lighting at all NHL arenas within five years. Transform…an initiative like Greener Rinks is transformative. It takes what we’ve learned to help community rinks operate more effectively from a variety of environmental and efficiency perspectives. It also helps them connect on the environment with their customers. Inspire means doing more to educate and engage our fans and players to take positive environmental action. One player from each club will be designated as a Green Ambassador. ”

 

Rogers Place

Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, features LED lighting (Photo credit: NHL)

 

The NHL also sees environmental sustainability as economic and social imperatives. Final words go to Omar Mitchell:

“Our focus on community rinks is crucial because it’s how kids come to the sport. We think Green Rinks can potentially help those rinks lower the high cost of ice time — it typically ranges between $200-$700 per hour — by reducing energy costs. Reductions in natural ice — as documented by RinkWatch — can limit kids to playing in rinks and many can’t afford it. So, you see, environmental sustainability is existential for the NHL and hockey more broadly.”

 

 

 


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