The world is burning, and hockey is played on ice.
Winter sports, especially those played outdoors, have been predictably impacted by the ongoing climate crisis.
Earlier this year, warm temperatures halted freestyle ski competitions at the 2023 Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island. Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway, an iconic canal-turned-ice rink that spans over 7.8 kilometres, could not open this past season for the first time since 1971 due to mild winter conditions.
Although the NHL plays most of its hockey games indoors, there is nonetheless an impetus for them to soon consider how they’ll adapt to, and help mitigate, the global climate emergency. After all, the literal foundation of what the sport is played on could depend on it.
The NHL’s newest team continues to make good on its climate pledge, but the league could also look to its recent past for a sustainable way forward.
‘Baseball-style’ scheduling was originally instituted to maintain the league’s survival amid health and travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It could be a much more global survival that necessitates the scheduling ‘quirk’ to return.
‘Baseball-style’ scheduling was introduced in the 2020-21 NHL season to limit travel between cities by having teams fly to an opposing venue to play multiple games in a row — rather than flying out for every individual engagement.
In practice, this meant a team’s visit to a single destination would often include a series of two or three games against the same opponent, similar to how Major League Baseball teams often play games against opponents.
For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs had five games scheduled that season at Rogers Arena — the home of the Edmonton Oilers — but only had to book two flights to Edmonton over the course of the year. The Leafs completed a two-game set followed by three straight games against the Oilers a month later.
In addition to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, fewer flights were also a boon to the travel budgets of NHL teams as well as player rest. Players like Jonathan Toews have long called for less travel that would result in more recovery time and, in theory, better quality play on the ice.
The reported downsides to such a schedule involved the league’s obligation to its commercial partners and the supposed difficulty of marketing games for a team that plays the same opponent consecutively. Both of those drawbacks seem to be self-inflicted by the NHL – it’s their job to negotiate those contracts to favour them and their job to properly market their product. The forces against a schedule with less air travel are within the league’s control.
In addition to the improved quality of player health, this scheduling would also greatly decrease the carbon footprint of the league.
A 2019 reimagining of the NHL’s schedule by The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and Dom Luszczyszyn drastically reduced travel by all of the league’s teams — with ‘baseball-style’ scheduling featuring prominently in their proposal. If the NHL had adopted their proposed schedule, it would have led to 291,020 fewer miles of air travel which, based on a model that suggests one air mile produces 53.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, would have produced 15.5 million fewer pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Though the league would likely never adopt Lazerus and Luszczyszyn’s reimagining wholesale, there are ideas within it — like ‘baseball-style scheduling’ — worth seriously considering.
Daniel Scott is a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo. In an email responding to the climate-impacted 2023 Canada Winter Games, he wrote:
“We do need to be realistic about future climate outcomes and plan accordingly. I don’t see that in the world of sport yet.”
The climate crisis is real, and game postponements in American baseball, soccer, and basketball leagues — brought on by poor air quality caused by wildfires — are only the most recent reminder that its impact will be felt in sports. Tweaking the NHL’s regular season schedule is only one of many ways the league could help mitigate its climate damage, but the effect of the NHL adopting — or more appropriately, re-adopting — ‘baseball-style’ scheduling could be significant in our collective fight in this crisis.
In 2019, the NHL’s head schedule maker Steve Hatze Patros noted that he “asks teams for a list of their requests, in the order of how important each request is,” before he embarks on crafting a regular season schedule.
This might be hopeful thinking, but if enough organisations request the league’s schedule do everything it can to help combat the climate emergency, Petros may only need to open a file folder from three years ago to find a template with an answer.