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Bettman discusses initiatives at Beyond Sport summit

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- The NHL's Gary Bettman was among three professional sports commissioners on hand Tuesday at Yankee Stadium taking part in a round-table discussion about the responsibility of teams and leagues to create a positive impact within communities and the environment.

Commissioners Roger Goodell of the NFL and Don Garber of the MLS also took part in the panel. The NBA's David Stern was scheduled to attend, but was forced to withdraw from the event.

Richter still making saves

The main attraction at Tuesday's day-long event at Yankee Stadium that featured discussions on how sports leagues and teams can have a positive impact socially and environmentally was the panel that featured three commissioners -- the NHL's Gary Bettman, the NFL's Roger Goodell and MLS' Don Garber.

But earlier that morning, former New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter was part of a four-person panel that took place in one of the stadium's luxury boxes, looking out directly on the right-field foul pole. Richter, along with Bernadette Mansur, the NHL Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Executive Director, NHL Foundation, Philadelphia Eagles COO Don Smolenski and Pocono Raceway President, CEO Brandon Igdalsky talked about sustainability.

To put it in layman's terms, sustainability pertains to finding a way for society to meet the needs of human beings without damaging ecological and social systems.

Richter, who turned his attention to the environment not long after retiring in 2003, is the managing director of Environmental Capital Partners. Richter is concerned with the way buildings can affect everyday life, be it the environment or just the mental well-being of their occupants.

"If you look at the built environment, 70 percent of greenhouse gases emitted in New York City come from the built environment," Richter said. "Eighty percent of those buildings will still be here in 20 years. For every building that's green or carbon neutral or cutting edge, 80 percent of that stuff will still be here in 20 years. We have to do something about those old buildings."

Richter equated the importance of the sustainability issue to that of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. He said that sports leagues and teams are in a unique position to move toward a greener planet in the same way they were a catalyst for breaking through the racial divide in the United States in 1947.

"Why would you use sports? The same reason you'd pay LeBron James to wear your sneakers -- it's going to get out there," Richter said. "Sports is that thing that cuts through society."

Richter believes the popularity of sports in comparison to science allows sports to reach more people.

"What does sports have besides just a cultural platform?" Richter said. "I think there's a real intersection there. It's about jobs, it's about energy, it's about social justice and most importantly, it's about human health."

Not only is it important from an ecological standpoint to have environment in mind when erecting a building, Richter said the human element can't be forgotten either.

He talked about how when the Rangers made the switch to the MSG Training Center in Greenburgh, N.Y., in 2002, it took some adjusting to the high-tech surroundings after spending so much time at a smaller, but perhaps more environmentally-friendly facility.

"We had this incredible old facility called Rye Playland. It was this small rink, but it had natural light all around it," Richter said. "One of the things that was so apparently missing (from the new practice facility) was natural light. It really makes a difference. The quality of life is affected by the built environment."
- Dave Lozo
The conversation about reaching out to fans and bettering the planet was part of a day-long event put together by Beyond Sport, a group chaired by former Great Britain and Northern Island Prime Minister Tony Blair that believes sports teams have an unrivaled ability to impact the populations of the cities in which they play.

When Bettman was asked why it's important for sports leagues and teams to take an interest in the environment, he offered an anecdotal, yet sound, answer.

"It's not so good for us if the ice keeps melting," he said.

As a result, the League instituted the NHL Green program, which started in 2010 as "a year-round commitment to making the League and its clubs more ecologically responsible while educating our fans and raising awareness of environmental issues." The initiatives range from common-sense thinking, like teams removing plastic bags in team stores and replacing them with re-usable bags, to grander efforts, like teams finding ways to recycle water they use at the rinks.

Green projects can be a tough sell sometimes in business because they are often accompanied by a steep initial price tag to convert from the old way of doing things. For Bettman, that expense shouldn't come at the expense of the environment.

"I'm not sure if you do the right thing, which going green is, you need to necessarily worry about the cost," Bettman said. "Secondarily, it doesn't always cost you more money. We've gotten a real education, starting from some of our former players like (New York Rangers goaltender) Mike Richter, who's been a proponent of going green and the importance of the environment for hockey.

"More importantly, it doesn't always cost more money."

Bettman talked about the NHL's partnership with "Rock and Wrap It Up!" in an effort to help erase hunger in the United States. The charity takes all prepared, but unsold food at sporting events and distributes it to local shelters and places of need.

"Instead of being thrown out, which last season would have been 105 tons of waste, it is now used to serve 160,000 meals to people that might otherwise have been hungry," Bettman said. "That's good business, it actually saves money, it reduces the expense of carting away trash. When you have programs like that, it's not very difficult to get your clubs interested."

As a high-profile sports league, Bettman considers it the NHL's responsibility to set an example for fans when it comes to thinking green and acting responsibly.

"I think it's important that your fans believe that with the public visibility that all of us have and the responsibility that we have, that your fans want to know that you're doing the right things and that you're making a difference and that they're part of something that not only is important, but is having a positive impact," Bettman said. "I think that's important to our fans."

Bettman stressed that the NHL doesn't only want to be environmentally responsible and set an example for others, it also wants to be socially responsible.

Every October features Hockey Fights Cancer, an initiative between the NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association that started in 1998 with the goal of raising money for cancer research and awareness of the disease. Hockey Is For Everyone, meanwhile, takes place in February and is a nationwide venture committed to offering children of all backgrounds the opportunity to play hockey.

Charities like these are something many people take for granted, but it's something the NHL feels is a moral imperative.

"It's great to make huge pronouncements and think you're creating a movement," Bettman said. "But all of these programs are designed to make a difference in someone's life. You really look at the impact … kids, adults, people whose lives have been impacted by a particular program which they wouldn't have known about or wouldn't have been possible without using sports as a vehicle.

"To me, I think that's more important than picking any one cause and saying, 'We're going to change the world.' If we can impact some people's lives 1-on-1, that's as important as anything else."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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