Ice, Ice ... Maybe?

The catastrophic effects of global warming means less cold weather. Now a legendary hockey player has an idea to call attention to the matter.

November 11, 2019

3:01 pm

There are quite a few varieties of the stick-and-goal sport known as hockey. There is street hockey, there is field hockey, and, of course, there is the best-known version of the game, ice hockey.

Ice hockey is played on … you guessed it: ice. And though there are indoor rinks throughout the United States where the game can be played in any kind of weather, ice hockey has a strong outdoor-ice tradition in cold-clime countries, like Finland, Russia, and Canada. (So much so that the National Hockey League has recently instituted a New Year’s Day tradition of scheduling at least one game a year in an outdoor venue.) And in those countries, aficionados of the sport have noticed the impact of climate change in a very emotional way: they are losing their game because the ice is melting.

In Finland, where a group called Save Pond Hockey has formed, the likelihood of playing hockey for months on end has disappeared with the ice itself.

Slava Fetisov playing pond hockey in Finland with the Finnish president

The problem was severe enough that it came to the attention of Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Slava Fetisov, a Russian national who for years starred on the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL.

Fetisov, who is also a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme, had a brainstorm that he shared with his friend, fellow Russian Sergey Rybakov. What if we were to stage a symbolic hockey game on an Arctic ice floe, to call attention to the impact that the climate crisis is having on Arctic sea ice (ice that plays an essential role in regulating planetary temperatures)?

The idea caught fire, and now in April 2020, a collection of star athletes from a variety of countries will head as north as possible to find a suitable surface for a game, which they are calling The Last Game. We spoke with Rybakov to get more details about this unique, important event.

EARTH’S CALL: What was your first indication that climate change was turning into a climate crisis?

Sergey Rybakov: We started working with environmental initiatives in 2014. The UN COP21 Climate Convention in Paris clearly showed us that climate change is a huge issue for everyone on our planet. The latest series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show the extent of what is already happening and what is anticipated, even if we all succeed to limit the warming to the Paris agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. And we can see the unprecedented changes in the cold regions, but all around the world; almost no day passes without breaking some record in rising temperatures or other extremes.

EARTH’S CALL: What gave you the idea for producing The Last Game?

Sergey Rybakov: Playing on outdoor ice helped Slava to achieve his dream and became a legendary ice hockey player. He practically spent all days in his childhood from October to April on the rivers and ponds of Moscow. Unfortunately, nowadays, swimwear would be needed instead of skates. So it was quite natural for us to connect sport and environment and to start The Last Game initiative.

Slava Fetisov playing pond hockey in Moscow

EARTH’S CALL: How did you get involved with the United Nations to execute this idea? 

Sergey Rybakov: We were in contact with the UN starting from our project of supporting the designation of the biggest marine protected area in the world in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Then we, together with UN Oceans Patron Lewis Pugh and the UN, started a global campaign against plastic pollution, doing beach cleanups in Versova Beach, India; Lake Baykal, Russia; and in the Arctic.

When representatives of several UN organizations heard about The Last Game idea, they immediately supported it, including the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who became an honorary captain of one of the teams.

EARTH’S CALL: How are you preparing for the logistics of playing a game of hockey on an ice floe, far from any major metropolitan area? 

Sergey Rybakov: We are working with polar explorers who are professionally prepared to work in that pristine part of the world. A natural, open-air ice rink will be set up to stage The Last Game. The whole operation requires a combination of good technical experience, but also great respect for the environment. But we are getting even more partners on board — starting with IT specialists from different space agencies — to ensure a live connection to the world from the ice floe. And then NGOs, scientists, and religious leaders who blessed this initiative.

EARTH’S CALL: What will be the biggest challenges in pulling this off?

Sergey Rybakov: Our goal is to unite everyone. From now on, we want to test the power of sports, starting with ice hockey but going further — by working together with the most influential sports movements, with substantive support from the United Nations’ climate and biodiversity actors. We want to build on our events performed so far, having attracted overwhelming local and national attention from politicians, sports people, environmentalists, media, local community, and youth.

We will use our events as an awareness-raising tool for communities to learn what they can really do to fight climate change and environmental degradation, as they are so closely connected. Sports is all about action — and actions, not speeches, can help us to save the planet. We engage citizens to commit to climate action using natural solutions, and we will use the unique power of sports to activate it.

Slava Fetisov with a hockey club in Kenya

EARTH’S CALL: What kind of safety training are the participants going through: polar bears, falling through the ice, frostbite?

Sergey Rybakov: Nothing special. We are working with professional polar explorers who are responsible for this expedition. A general briefing will be done for all the participants before our travel to the North Pole. The expedition to conduct The Last Game will be quite short, just several hours, also for environmental reasons.

EARTH’S CALL: In Slava's global travels, what did he encounter that made him such a passionate activist for climate justice?

Sergey Rybakov: As part of this initiative we have already played in five countries and visited around 12. In each country, without any exceptions, people are suffering from the diverse effects of climate change, which transpired from the many conversations that Slava had. We are receiving tremendous demand from the countries that we have not visited yet to come and see how climate change is interfering with the regular life of the local communities and indigenous people, from Africa to Iceland, from Latin America to Asia.

Climate change is really a huge, global issue. Slava wants to give his hand not just to give ice hockey clinics, but to connect his experiences and stories collected and push for a decisive global climate action.

EARTH’S CALL: What is the hoped-for outcome of a game like this? Global media attention on the issue of the climate crisis? Government response to take action?

Sergey Rybakov: We are using the Arctic, and the North Pole game, as a case study for much wider challenges. The biggest environmental threat in the Arctic today is climate change, but the Arctic changes will have an impact on climate, nature, and cities throughout the whole planet. Arctic issues require joint actions and global engagement, to ensure a sustainable development, in line with the UN Agenda 2030. So we are using this initiative as an example, a blueprint to bring everyone onboard for one global goal, to keep the climate change and biodiversity loss on a leash.

At the center, we have the link between the sports conduct, sports audience, and climate change and impact. We focus on the need to mobilize concrete action by all citizens, through the involvement of the sports industry and personalities as role models. Climate change will impact people around the world, and also action to fight climate change needs to come from every household, every individual — and very urgently. The only chance to succeed is to find ways to come down from conference halls full of climate negotiators and politicians to people on the street, our everyday habits and choices. We want to build on our events performed so far. We will use our events as an awareness-raising tool for communities to learn what they can really do to fight climate change and environmental degradation.

EARTH’S CALL: What can people like us do every day to help the global fight against the climate crisis?

Sergey Rybakov: In every country that we have visited, we learned about the ideas of local communities — how they can fight climate change. They differ from country to country, based on their geographical position, background, and problems caused by climate change. It is important to realize that it is not just governments or big companies who can slow down climate change to an acceptable degree — every citizen of the world, with his or her choices, counts toward the success, or failure, of our efforts. We are trying to collect the best practices and promote them during our events. Based on UN recommendations for children and youth, together with the Special Olympics, we have started the Eco-Athletes program.

In cooperation with UNFCCC, we work on:

• Sports for Climate Action Framework: The Last Game is engaging teams and sports organizations that it meets to join this Framework as a way to learn how to take action on climate and show commitment

• Climate Neutral Now: we invite organizations to join Climate Neutral Now.

And definitely more to come, this is just the beginning and we, together, need to do a lot to protect our planet for our kids — for the future generations.

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