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Pro sports officials, especially in hockey, worried about climate change

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As a cold weekend draws near here in the American heartland, it’s as good a time as any to ponder a new development in the word of climate change.

Travis Waldron REPORTS on policy discussions held yesterday in Washington that may have escaped your attention:

Across Canada and the northern United States, thousands of children a year learn to love the game of hockey in the winter when they lace up their skates, grab their sticks, and head to the local pond to piece together a game on their frozen sandlots. They imitate the stars they see on TV, the Gretzkys and Crosbys and Ovechkins, and turn into lifelong players and fans.

But those kids are starting to run into a major problem: the frozen ponds they play on are less and less likely to form each winter, as a changing climate makes winter warmer and open ice more scarce.

That isn’t just bad news for kids who want to play the game. It’s also worrisome for the National Hockey League, a league already a distant fourth among America’s top four professional sports that depends on those pickup games and frozen ponds to help build new generations of fans and players. And the NHL isn’t alone. The NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and WNBA are all worried about the effects of environmental changes on their sports and the people who play them, which is why representatives from those five leagues plus the U.S. Olympic Committee joined Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) on Capitol Hill today to discuss their efforts to reduce energy usage and address climate change — and the efforts the federal government could take to do the same.

All of the representatives noted that their leagues felt a social responsibility for improving the environment. But they also stressed that it was good for business, and that in some ways their businesses depend on it. Warmer summers and polluted air have already made playing sports like baseball, football, and basketball outside more dangerous at certain times in the year. For the NHL, chief financial officer Craig Harnett said, fewer frozen ponds means less access for young people. All of that means fewer people can turn into fans and players through actual participation.

“It’s no secret that many of the people many of the athletes who aspire to become professional hockey players or amateur or college hockey players, they learn on the pond. And to the extent that it becomes more difficult to create ice in those environments, you’re obviously limiting access to it,” Harnett said. “Right now in this country we already don’t have enough access to rinks and ice times, and we as an organization would like to see more access to that.

“It builds fans, it builds athletes, it provides more access and more competition, and we’re all in favor of that.”

Whitehouse and Waxman organized a bicameral task force to address climate change earlier this year. In letters to the task force released at different points throughout 2013, all of the leagues demonstrated efforts they have taken to reduce waste and energy use, mostly in their stadiums. Reducing energy use will naturally help the environment, but it’s also been good for their bottom lines. 

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