TORONTO - Everybody seems to be going green these days and the NHL Players' Association is asking its members to jump on the bandwagon.
The David Suzuki Foundation and the union announced plans Friday for a partnership that asks players to become more eco-friendly, both at home through their personal choices and in their professional lives through the NHLPA Carbon Neutral Challenge.
The latter initiative involves players purchasing clean-air credits to compensate for the extra carbon produced by their extensive travels - a concept known as carbon offsets. All the money they raise will help fund three clean-air projects around the world through Montreal-based not-for-profit Planetair.
"It's unbelievable how guys pick up on it and know something is important," said Boston Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference, the catalyst for the program. "Hockey is filled with a lot of great character and guys are showing it by stepping up and doing the right thing.
"It's all about taking initiative and we have a lot of guys who are really good at doing that."
Over 350 players - including everyone on the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars - have already signed up to contribute $290 annually and hundreds more are expected to join in the coming weeks. The amount is based on a clean-air credit cost of $29 per ton and research that says each NHL player contributes 10 tons of carbon emissions per season.
While the dollar-amount may be small, the world-renowned Suzuki believes the impact of having hockey players involved is immeasurable.
"Environmentalists would kill to get this type of attention," he joked as he pointed to a line of cameras. "Let's face it, an old crusty guy like me, an environmentalist, who the hell is going to listen to me? But these guys connect directly with our youth and it's all about the future."
Ference was inspired to launch the program by Canadian Olympic skier Thomas Grandi, who along with wife Sara Renner, an Olympic silver medallist in cross-country skiing, hooked up with Suzuki back in December 2006.
Grandi calculated how much extra carbon he produces while travelling with the Canadian ski team and bought $535 worth of clean air credits to make up for it. He also donated half his prize winnings that season to Suzuki's foundation.
They also urged fellow winter athletes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their daily living, getting the entire Canadian ski team on board.
"There it was obvious because they know meets are being cancelled now in Europe because of a lack of snow. They can see the impact," said Suzuki. "The hockey players are a natural it seems to me, but we have to talk about branching out to the other sports."
Ference started by getting seven of his Flames teammates to sign up.
"If amateur athletes can do it, than we better," he said. "It really is a small amount to contribute but it's the power that message contributes, getting the idea in these players heads about doing the right thing."
Social consciousness comes naturally to Ference, who is also an athlete ambassador for Right to Play, an international charitable organization that uses sport to improve the lives of children and communities affected by war, poverty and disease.
He and Florida Panthers defenceman Steve Montador were part of a July 1-8 trip to Tanzania last summer, an experience that changed him forever. He understands the power of the platform he as an athlete and is thrilled to see the NHLPA taking on a more activist role.
"It's an opportunity and a responsibility," said Ference. "How many kids are watching NHL players and emulating them on the ice? And to see what those same heroes are doing off the ice is very powerful. That's a responsibility that falls on any professional athlete or high-profile person's shoulders, what kind of message are they putting out there? What are they standing for as a group?"
New NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly believes there is a place for the union to be involved in social causes.
"We're becoming a more diverse organization, it's not just looking out for players, players' families, starting to do some partner things with the NHL in terms of marketing," he said. "But in terms of being socially conscious and environmentally responsible, we definitely want to go in that direction."
That has helped make inroads with NHL players in regards to the carbon challenge, although much work lies ahead.
Gas-guzzling SUVs are a common vehicle of choice for professional athletes, hockey players included. Awareness about the issues related to global warming and of the alternatives that are out there are key in the fight.
For instance, Ference got ribbed by his Calgary teammates for driving a hybrid last season, but a handful of players ended up following his lead. Same goes for the Bruins, who had fun with him for riding a bike to the rink until captain Zdeno Chara and others joined in.
"It's introducing guys to things they might not have known about," said Ference. "In Calgary for example, it was call the power companies and switch to wind and guys were like, 'Oh, you can do that?' Six or seven guys picked up the phone and switched to wind. People in general want to do the right thing, as long as someone can show them the way, they're all for it.
"Hockey players aren't different than anybody else."
Their contributions to the carbon challenge will go towards a bio-mass outfit in India, a micro-hydro system in Indonesia and a wind-farm in Madagascar.