A Chat About The Environment With Mike Richter

Mike Richter, champion on the ice and environmental champion off the ice.

Mike Richter, champion on the ice and environmental champion off the ice.

By Jennifer May-Reddy

Mike Richter is best known as one of the most successful goalies in the National Hockey League. He retired in 2003 and choose a different path – becoming partner at a private equity firm supporting companies in the environmental industry and launching Athletes for a Healthy Planet, an organization that makes the connection between a healthy planet and healthy athletes. Mike took time out of his busy schedule to talk with the EPA about why athletes and sports fans alike should care about the environment.

Q: Some people might not see an obvious nexus between sports and the environment. What do you think the connection or common thread is between sports and the environment?

A: As an athlete, I’ve been called an unlikely environmentalist but I think the environment is actually particularly relevant to athletes. Performance in sport is directly related to one’s health. The environment in which we live profoundly affects our health.

When it comes to global warming, the roots of my sport are far more affected than some other sports. The frozen ponds and lakes of North America where the sport was born freeze later and melt earlier lessening the opportunity to participate. The “free ice” which is truly free – being able to bring your skates and just walk up and play – is going away. The great history of this old sport of kids skating down the St. Lawrence River or having a pond in their backyard where they didn’t need to pay to play because this was their arena is going away. It is a shame.

Of course, so many aspects of our society are affected by pollution. But there is a direct connection with sports.

All sports started outside in a fundamental way. Sport in its basic and best sense is a challenge with yourself. You don’t have to be on a team or in an aerobics class. You can actually go up a mountain and see if you can make it to the top. That is an athletic feat. That is an athletic endeavor. But if you don’t have the trails and you don’t have the clean water or the non-polluted air, you just don’t participate as much in sports. Worse, if the local environment is compromised by pollution, it may actually be a hazard to your health.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how you got into the green movement? Were you involved in environmental causes when you were a player?

I don’t remember thinking of myself as an environmentalist. It was just on one level practical-don’t waste anything-food money, time. On another, the concept fairness and social justice.

I grew up in Northwest Philadelphia in the city – it wasn’t an urban environment, it was more suburban but every adventure I had in the small woods behind my house or local farms, it might as well have been in the Grand Tetons. It was incredible. We had sleep outs and tree forts, we found minnows and broke ice in the winter in the little creek behind my house. It is such an enormously important part of life.

I do remember there was dioxin in the river that we used to play in and they would say you really can’t eat the fish out of there. Nothing lived. All from a photo-processing plant upriver. And so it is not theoretical even for little kids. It is practical. It means that you can’t play in certain areas. It is taking away quality of life. There is an enormous injustice in that which has always bothered me.

In my life, I also lived on the Upper West Side in New York and admired the West River. The fact you can’t take a fish out of there is a sad thing. And it doesn’t have to be that way. There have been great efforts to clean up the Hudson and it’s come a long, long way. But any 5 year old can tell you that throwing one’s garbage on another person’s house is just plain old wrong. It is no different when people, corporations, or communities externalize their cost on another and pollute.

Being called an environmentalist is a funny thing. It has been politicized and it shouldn’t be a political thing. I have friends who are conservative, liberal and everything in between. And they all want clean and functioning resources and healthy children and good health for themselves.

To me, if you live on this Earth, you are an environmentalist. If you’re breathing, you want clean air and water. I think the questions is more “When did people stop identifying themselves as ‘pro-environment’?”

Q: What can fans or athletes do to be part of the “green sports” movement?

A: Most importantly, educate yourself. Ignorance of the issues is the real villain here. Become educated on the problems and available solutions, then implement them in your own life as much as possible. Take public transportation, recycle, and purchase local food. When these many excellent green sport programs are unveiled, show your team that it matters to you. Finally, demand it of their teams, players as well as themselves. Like any consumer, fans can reward those who move toward sustainability.

Q: In your experience, how are fans and players responding to green initiatives at venues?

People want clean water and clean air, clean energy, and sustainable alternatives to conventional products. They just don’t want to pay more, have inferior performance, and more difficulty in making it happen. When you go to an arena with 60,000 people in it and there are only two recycling cans on the other side of an acre-long walkway, the fan may not make the effort to recycle the bottle. It has to be easier.

Now, we see teams starting to understand environmental efforts. We have a long way to go, but they’ve come an enormous distance. You look at the recycling programs and public service announcements at games. Athletes are also starting to get more involved. We’re in a different place that we were even a decade ago in terms of the acceptance and acknowledgement of it and possible solutions. Arenas and teams are realizing that there is a more effective and efficient ways of running things. And as any person who runs a business knows, you can never be too efficient. Where there is waste, you are losing money.

The NHL’s “Rock and Wrap It Up” campaign, where they take food that has been prepared but is unused and donate it is a great example of what the environmental movement should be focusing on. In the end, we are talking about performance-less waste, smarter technology and design.

Q: Can you talk about the work you have been doing with Athletes for a Healthy Planet and other environmental organizations?

I believe that our problems with resource management are profound but recoverable. We will need government, the capital markets and NGOs combined to address the challenges if we are going to be successful. People are busy and there is a lot of information is out there but they want to do the right thing.

The environmental organizations I’ve worked with are comprised of ordinary people who care about their health, their kids and the future of their planet. They’re not radical. They are very thoughtful and generous. These projects need funding, science and volunteers. I believe very deeply in these organizations. Helping out with these organizations is one of the best gifts you can give back to society because everyone truly benefits from it.

Mike Richter is the founder and CEO of Healthy Planet Partners which finances energy infrastructure upgrades and renewables on commercial buildings. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Riverkeeper locally and on the Sierra Club Foundation Board of Directors nationally. Mr. Richter enjoyed a successful 15 year career with the New York Rangers where he was a three time NHL All-Star and in 1994 led the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Championship in 54 years. Mr. Richter also represented the United States on numerous international competitions including three Olympic teams, earning World Cup gold in 1996 and an Olympic Silver Medal in 2002. After retiring, Mr. Richter enrolled in Yale University and received his degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics with a concentration in Environmental Policy.