Unfrozen ponds and climate change

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

What does a healthy environment really look like? It can be seen through the eyes of a child - a kid holding a hockey stick on a frozen pond dreaming of the Olympics.

This year, work crews have been trucking in snow for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the forecast for more ... rain. While a specific weather event isn't necessarily a function of climate change, it is drawing needed attention to our continuing global crisis.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Green Panel forum sponsored by the National Hockey League to discuss environmental issues. Our backdrop was the outdoor ice rink built at Boston's Fenway Park for the NHL Winter Classic outdoor hockey game.

We discussed the importance of curbing climate change to boost the U.S. economy and to create jobs in the United States. We acknowledged that China and Europe are racing ahead of America on clean technologies - and how important is it for the United States to act to ensure our standing as a world economic leader. We talked about how addressing climate change is critical to our national security and we accepted the moral obligation that this moment represents and the opportunity it presents to make a difference for generations to come.

For me, there was no more poignant connection to climate change than the ice rink below us under Fenway's lights - a glimpse of what life had been before we had changed the outdoors so much that we were forced to bring the game indoors.

The roots of hockey are in the frozen lakes, ponds and rivers, of North America. As enjoyable as the simple act of skating is - its efficiency, rhythm and speed - to skate outside is altogether different. It is pure magic.

I grew up in a northwestern suburb of Philadelphia, dreaming of one day playing in the NHL. Ice time of any sort was hard to come by, so when the ponds froze my world stopped. I used to imagine being a young Guy Lafleur on the frozen St. Laurence River, or Rocket Richard on a farm somewhere in Quebec where the ice would never melt, even, I suspected, in the summer. I can remember practicing kick saves all alone for as long as there was daylight.

The beauty of a frozen lake is more than free ice time; it is freedom itself - freedom from the overly structured, hyper competitive, parent-driven, mini-professional leagues that pass as sport in our culture. Here, the game is at its best and, where young players limited only by their imagination develop their true genius for the sport.

So it is truly a loss when these roots are severed in the shifting terrain of climate change. Like so many other areas of our lives affected by changes in the natural world, we have been forced to confine our experience into narrower and narrower bands of place. We think that nothing has changed because we're still ostensibly performing the same activity. But the very essence of the activity has often been lost in this transformation.

Every day, my son asks "do you think that the pond will be frozen?" And every day that we walk to our neighbor Ross's pond to check, he is filled with optimism. Today it was 54 and raining. Southern Connecticut probably sees less natural ice now than Philadelphia did two decades ago.

I am less optimistic: This generation of adults is not making the connection. I think of our discussions at the NHL's Green Panel, and what did not happen in Copenhagen. I don't need Al Gore, the famous hockey stick temperature graph, or the IPCC to tell me what I can already see. The world is different, the climate is warming, and these changes are negatively affecting too many aspects of our lives.

I wish we could turn back the clock. I want my boys' generation to enjoy the same rich opportunities as I had. I worry for the future of the game that I love. I worry for the future of our economy, our national security and our planet.

My 5-year-old son, the kid with the hockey stick, feels the same as me - I want my pond back.

• Mike Richter is a National Hockey League Hall of Fame goalie. He is a partner at a New York private equity firm and can be reached at iwantmypondbackgmail.com.

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