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Future of game, environment discussed at Hockey SENSE

Environmental sustainability, equality focus of conversations

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- The Hockey Hall of Fame celebrates much that is great about the sport's past, honoring its legendary names and iconic moments. Early Monday morning, the shrine was home to a large gathering focused on the future. Not just of the sport, but of the planet.

Assembling in the Hall of Fame's Great Hall among the priceless trophies and plaques of those inducted through the decades were some 250 dignitaries, educators, NHL alumni and members of the wide hockey community.

The group was taking part in Hockey SENSE, an NHL and NHL Players' Association summit that explored and interactively discussed social equality issues and sustainable environments in hockey.

Beginning with a breakfast-time session of networking, Hockey SENSE adjourned upstairs to the Great Hall for a full morning of workshops and presentations on hot-button issues in hockey that are felt well beyond the sport.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr opened the session in a discussion with host Elliotte Friedman, discussing the importance to the League and its players of social equality and environmental sustainability.

"We're finding ourselves in a unique and challenging time throughout the world," Commissioner Bettman said. "We can use hockey as the universal language to bring the world together with an event like this. With constituents from throughout the world, we can show that hockey can represent diversity and inclusiveness, which are kind of environmental issues on their own, and tie them to using sport as a platform to raise consciousness about what we can do to make a more sustainable planet.

"It's really the ability of our game, the people associated with it and the platform our athletes have to send out messages and bring people together in a world that seems ever increasingly private."

Said Fehr: "One of the interesting things that has happened the last 20, 25 years, or so it seems to me, is that the level of public discourse about issues we all have to confront has become a little meaner, a little more trite, a little less substantive. And that means that the issues that we all have to deal with, wherever in the world we come from, become more difficult because you're not talking about them.

"Sometimes what you can do with an event that isn't ostensibly devoted to those kinds of matters is to shine a light on what needs to be looked at, talked about, and how you can do it a little bit differently."

This summit was an ambitious step in that direction by the NHL and the NHLPA. Those in attendance have a passion for hockey, and they assembled from many fields of interest.

The keynote address, how hockey can embody the meaning of diversity, integration and acceptance, was delivered by Harnarayan Singh, the energetic voice of "Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi."

Singh was followed by former NHL center Igor Larionov, who discussed an international perspective on hockey's ability to break down barriers.

There was a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion, featuring NHL pioneer Willie O'Ree and Wade Davis, Director of Professional Sports Outreach for the You Can Play Project.

An interactive session and panel discussion followed, with experts exploring the intersection of sustainability, accessibility and inclusion; and how hockey can maximize its potential to create environmentally effective arenas and communities.

Closing remarks, with recommendations and an eye to the future, featured NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and Sandra Monteiro, Chief of Global Business Strategies for the NHLPA.

Environmental sustainability is a real issue facing hockey. And it's something that's much deeper than a warming planet shortening the season of a community's outdoor winter rink.

"We're a sport that has our very origin on frozen ponds," Commissioner Bettman said. "The accessibility of our game to young people is impacted negatively to the extent that ponds and lakes and rivers aren't freezing the way they used to. There's less access to just skating outdoors. People marvel when they come to our outdoor games. Part of that is the imaging of taking our game back to its roots."

The Commissioner spoke to the NHL focus on its use of renewable energy and recycling programs, "a League-wide effort to make sure we're doing the right things and conveying the right messages."

The summit will continue Wednesday, also at the Hall of Fame, with a focus on youth hockey and hockey development, addressing the state of the game, long-term athlete development, coaching and international growth. In addition to Bettman and Fehr, speakers will include Pat LaFontaine, NHL Vice-President, Hockey Development; Luc Robitaille, Los Angeles Kings president of business operations; and Mathieu Schneider, NHLPA special assistant to the executive director.

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