Hockey Canada saw a significant leadership change last summer when Tom Renney, a former Canadian men's Olympic hockey coach, replaced Bob Nicholson as the president and chief executive officer of the not-for-profit organization.
Renney, 59, takes over at a challenging time for Hockey Canada, the national governing body for the sport that counts more than 700,000 players, coaches and officials spread among 13 provincial/territorial branch associations as it membership.
Enrolment numbers are stagnant and there are significant cost and safety challenges involved in recruiting and retaining players. Renney returns to Hockey Canada, which is headquartered in Calgary but has regional centres in Toronto and Montreal, after a 20-year absence, which saw him become head coach of three different NHL teams – the Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers. Most recently, he was an assistant coach on Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit.
Renney, who has maintained a Calgary residence since 1992, sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss the direction he hopes to take Hockey Canada in the years ahead.
Your title is president and chief executive officer of Canada's national governing of hockey, this vast, multitiered body with a broad mandate – to lead, develop and promote positive hockey experiences is the official mission statement. So what do you focus on first?
Really and truly, if this game is going to survive and thrive, you've got to pay attention to grassroots and development. It might not have the sex appeal of the Olympics or the NHL or even our high-performance programs, but if we don't have that, we don't have anything. So that's No. 1.
No. 2, we have to make sure the demographic improves and the numbers improve. How do we increase enrolment? How do we maintain the people who are here, but also, how do we encourage others come into the game?
Female hockey is No. 3. It's a huge demographic, with the potential to be even bigger. Then there's high performance, those are the four main components. And within all of those, there's a business platform, a sponsorship platform and a finance platform to deal with.
Your background is largely in coaching, but it sounds as if a lot of the work now might be on the business side of the operation.
Right now, I'm probably doing 65 to 70 per cent business. The hockey component, I have an intuitive view of it and lots of experience along the way. The business/finance/sponsorship side, I've got to get to know that better. I think the thing I have going for me is, I enjoy talking to people. When it comes to sponsors, it's about relationship building. As a coach, I've done that, so that's kind of in my wheel house anyway. Then there's a huge political component to all of this. That's my biggest fear. That I can tolerate it; be patient with it; and respect the need for it.
When you talk about politics, do you specifically mean dealing with the branches, or something else?
Partly, but there's also the governmental perspective. Then there's the IIHF political mechanism. There's the National Hockey League. There's the NHL Players' Association. You can wrap politics up into anything.
So let's switch gears and talk about safety. Currently, concussion awareness is arguably the No. 1 safety issue in the sport and progress is difficult to quantify because even the experts say there's still a lot to learn about diagnosis, treatment and recovery. What are your thoughts?
Do you remember a couple of years ago, when I got hit in the head in Toronto [coaching the Oilers]? I was out. I didn't coach that night. I went to Detroit the next day. Practised. Did a scrum. Felt terrible. Puked, threw up, did all that stuff. Coached the next night in Detroit, shouldn't have. Ended up doing an Own The Podium presentation in Ottawa. Got that done, went back to my hotel, threw up again. I knew I was concussed. Got back to Edmonton. They shut me down. I couldn't go to the rink, couldn't watch TV, couldn't do anything for three weeks. From first-hand experience, I know what a concussion is like as an adult. So for a child? This is scary stuff.
So are you satisfied that Hockey Canada is doing enough to promote awareness?
From an outsider's view, I think they've done a heck of a job in trying to lead the country and protect their participants. By protecting I just don't mean with equipment or with programs, of which we have a number of, but also with respect to the identification of concussions, and developing concussion protocols for kids. We have apps on telephones, we have apps you can get on line, we have educational programs, we educate our coaches, our officials, our parents. We are delivering it as hard and as heavy as we can – because safety's an issue. But if we do our jobs and coach and officiate the game properly, the safeguards are in place. There's no part in our lives that are without risk, but we're sure trying to make it as safe as we can.
How do you think the public perceives Hockey Canada?
I probably can't answer that from an experiential point of view in this seat, but I would say Hockey Canada is still pretty much revered. I would say, I think it's misunderstood to the extent that they think we're this big massive animal that has all kinds of money, and unlimited resources.
… and you're finding that's not the case?
[Laughs] Quite the contrary. It's a battle every day. I would say the perception of Hockey Canada from the general public is good, but I would also say they're asking, 'But what does it do for me?' We've got to make a decision here. What do we want to pursue here? Do we want to be strictly high performance and leave the game to the branches? Or do we want to help legislate the game because it requires that – for safety reasons, among others? If we're going to do that, then we have to open the game up to the entrepreneurs in the game; to the business thinkers in the game. How can we operate better in 2014, recognizing that there's sports academies and hockey academies and schools all over the country that are doing a pretty good job of delivering the game to people?
There's one value that has to exist above all others in our program and that's courage – the courage to look beyond who and what we are; and where and how we can get better? And how can we help our partners get better and be part of this next wave of growth? I wish I could tell you exactly what that looks like; I can't. In my mind, that's what I want to achieve here, but I don't want it to be at the expense of coming to the rink for all the right reasons either. People should just love the game. Whether you're a parent, or a participant on the ice; or an official, we've got to make sure the rink is still a destination.
I think we can both agree the vast majority of kids playing hockey won't make it to pro. How do you get that message across – that there are still other good reasons to play?
We have to make it fun. Lost in everything is, 'why do we go to the rink?' Let's discover hockey again. Hockey's there to help deliver the message of teamwork and values and second and third effort and taking instruction and translating that into your own style. We don't pay enough attention to that and that's exactly what we should be paying attention to.
You are just in the early days of this job. How have you liked it so far?
I can tell you right now, there's only two other times in my life where I remember feeling the same way. Once was standing on the bench in Lillehammer, going into the final game of the [1994 Winter] Olympics, thinking, 'We've done something special here.' The other time was my first game at Madison Square Gardens as coach. I was looking out my office window here, seeing the view, seeing the mountains and thinking, 'This is awesome.' And it's been that way every day since.