Norm O’Reilly is the dean of the University of Maine’s Business School. Rick Burton is the David B. Falk professor of sport management at Syracuse University. They are co-authors of the new book Business the NHL Way (University of Toronto Press) and regular co-columnists for Sport Business Journal.
Hockey Canada currently and rightfully sits at its nadir, a disgraced institution that must face its sins before moving on to rebuild. It’s time to ask a simple question with no easy answers: Where can Hockey Canada go from here? As professionals who have spent most of our lives working, analyzing and consulting for sports organizations around the world, we think that restoring the integrity of the Hockey Canada brand will depend on securing the right kinds of partnerships.
Revising the governance model is well under way, so what is the one thing, the most important “truth,” for Hockey Canada to undertake when a new board goes to work? New leadership should be tasked with designing and constructing bylaws that mandate the cultural change needed. This will require a rebrand, which must be the priority.
Prior to this scandal, Hockey Canada was a “best practices” organization, not just in Canadian sport but globally. The governing body’s history – in terms of event hosting, merchandise, broadcasting, sponsorship and retail – was matched only by major professional sport clubs in Canada.
That has changed. The Hockey Canada brand has been critically devalued. Is it irreparable? Time will tell, but we don’t think so.
An extensive and urgent strategy is needed, as the organization’s resources are already massively compromised (e.g., loss of all major sponsors, frozen government support) and will continue in that fashion until things change.
An essential immediate step here, in our view, is partnering with four organizations in four different ways. The first is to find a partner who “gets it” or has recently dealt with this type of issue. True Sport, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, ParticipAction – the list is long.
Need an example? Look at the Canadian Olympic Committee today and recall the 2015 scandal around then-president Marcel Aubut. The COC turned to an independent party to investigate. Today, that organization is thriving. A partner organization may not provide oversight, but it can certainly provide free counsel and shared experiences. Its best practices can serve the new and improved Hockey Canada.
The second partnership should involve a philanthropic organization or not-for-profit cause the new Hockey Canada would support (financially) and, more importantly, engage for hard consultations. On this list of possible partners: Canadian Women in Sport, Aboriginal Sport Circle, Black Talent Initiative, ParticipAction and/or Jumpstart.
The third, and most challenging, partnership is finding a single major sponsor willing to assist with the rebuild. This may be one of the former sponsors who recently stepped away. One long associated with hockey, trusted and willing to take some risk yet fully invested in assisting the resurrected brand.
Its involvement should not be valued in terms of dollars spent with Hockey Canada but on the reputational value it brings. Its “value-in-kind” (VIK) or “contra” provisions can assist (in an interdependent way) with Hockey Canada’s renewal. It would need to be convinced and then promote (publicly) that the new Hockey Canada is on track to meaningful change.
Hockey Canada should build a fourth partnership with another leading hockey organization. Enlist a champion from other elite hockey organizations, perhaps the Premier Hockey Federation or Para Hockey, who might help shoulder the burden left behind by others.
The full list of what Hockey Canada needs to do involves multiple things, meriting a book or PhD thesis. They include committing to complete transparency, rebranding, rewriting policy, revising the governance model and implementing greater punishments, up to and including lifetime bans for anyone who breaks the rules.
But it all begins with branding. Brands are perceptions, measured in the value people hold in their minds about a given property. And how Hockey Canada goes about this will make for a valuable lesson for all organizations.