The introduction of a military veteran has become a feel-good staple during stoppages of play during games around the National Hockey League. It’s a chance for fans to recognize a local hero and thank him or her for their service.
It’s also a nice community-minded gesture made by the clubs. At least that’s true in some cases. In others, it’s been a chance for teams to use patriotism to add to their bottom line.
Contracts between the Pentagon and teams from five pro sports leagues that were designed to promote military service cost taxpayers more than $10 million over the past four years, according to a report issued Wednesday by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake.
The joint oversight report, entitled “Tackling Paid Patriotism,” focused mainly on deals between the U.S. Department of Defense and the NFL. It did, however, name six NHL teams that it says accepted “paid patriotism” funds from various arms of the DOD in the fiscal years 2012 to ’14:
• Boston Bruins: $280,000
• Carolina Hurricanes: $75,000
• Dallas Stars: $34,000
• Detroit Red Wings: $41,500
• Florida Panthers: $40,000
• Minnesota Wild: $570,000
In exchange for these funds, NHL teams provided a variety of perks, including season tickets, luxury suites and facilities to enhance recruitment, but also:
• Opportunities for a soldier to deliver the puck at the start of home games.
• Featured soldier presentation and live recognition.
• On-ice swearing-in ceremonies.
• Pregame chalk talk with management and coaches.
• Opportunity to perform the national anthem.
“By paying for such heartwarming displays like recognition of wounded warriors, surprise homecomings, and on-field enlistment ceremonies, these displays lost their luster,” the report stated. “Unsuspecting audience members became the subjects of paid-marketing campaigns rather than simply bearing witness to teams’ authentic, voluntary shows of support for the brave men and women who wear our nation’s uniform. This not only betrays the sentiment and trust of fans, but casts an unfortunate shadow over the genuine patriotic partnerships that do so much for our troops.
“Taxpayers—not the teams—paid for patriotism and VIP perks. It is time to allow major sports teams’ legitimate tributes to our soldiers to shine with national pride rather than being cast under the pallor of marketing gimmicks paid for by American taxpayers.”
The report states that the Pentagon is discontinuing the practice of paying for patriotic displays at games and events, and that the NFL “has called on all clubs to stop accepting payment for patriotic salutes.”
The NHL isn't sure there's a need for a similar commitment.
“It’s not an area that we have weighed into with our clubs from a league perspective,” NHL deputy commission Bill Daly told SI.com. “We would have to evaluate whether there is a reason to do that going forward, and that is not something that we have done at this point.”
At least one of the teams involved is looking to "clarify" its contract with the National Guard.
“For years, the Minnesota Wild has dedicated efforts and funds to support military members and their families," Kathy Ross, the team's senior director of strategic communications, wrote in an email to SI.com. "The intent of our marketing partnership with the National Guard is tied to their recruiting efforts. The contracts, as they have been written, may not have clearly distinguished the promotion of recruiting efforts from moments of recognition. Therefore, we will clarify this point in the current contract with the National Guard, and look to continue our proud tradition of honoring and supporting our troops.”
A Hurricanes spokesman took issue with the report, saying that the items listed, including a suite and the use of a conference room, were simply added value items for an advertising agreement with the Air Force.
“The key components that the $75,000 actually paid for were commercial spots, game-night sponsorships and in-arena signage,” says Mike Sundheim, Carolina’s vice president of communications. “Our in-game recognition of military members, Military Appreciation Night and other programs designed to honor and support the large military population in North Carolina are sponsored by the team, its players and non-governmental corporate sponsors. This year, three of our players—Justin Faulk, James Wisniewski and John-Michael Liles—spent more than $60,000 to create a program that provides game-night experiences for military personnel and their families throughout the year.
“North Carolina is home to major bases for the Army, Marine Corps and the Air Force, all within driving distance of Raleigh. The tickets and things we do during games to showcase the military are reflections of our organization’s pride in the men and women who live in our home state and devote their lives to defending our country.”
A spokesman for the Stars echoed those comments.
“We have nothing ongoing with the military right now," said Tom Holy, Dallas' senior director of communications. "We do things to honor the military, like our Hometown Heroes program and our Military Appreciation Night, but nothing that is sponsored in any way. It's just something we do to pay tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces.”
Matt Caldwell, Chief Operating Officer for the Panthers, told SI.com that the team does not currently have any sponsorship agreements with any branches of the armed services, and that any earlier sponsorship agreement, which occurred under previous ownership, was not tied to honoring veterans.
"It was an agreement with the Air Force that they did recruiting on our concourse and set up tables," he said. “I know that when our owner bought the team, we started [honoring troops at games]. We don't have any sponsorship agreements with any of the armed services, and everything that we do in honoring troops is purely on our own dime, if you want to call it that. We do a Heroes Among Us program where we honor a veteran every game, we bring them on the ice during the National Anthem, provide a Panthers jersey, buy tickets for him and his family. It's something we take really seriously. Our owner [Vinnie Viola] is a West Point graduate, an Army Ranger and on top of our owner, we have six veterans in the Panthers organization. I'm the No. 2 person in the organization, we have another, Eric Joyce who's the assistant GM, We have Adam Fullerton who runs all of our operations then we have three other vets who are on the operations side, too.”
”For us right now, we have nothing in place, and everything we do every game is purely to honor troops, nothing to do with some back-end payment that we're getting.”
The Bruins issued a statement as well, saying “We have in-game salutes to military personnel that we started on merit without sponsors. Since starting these programs various sponsors have signed on for their advertising purposes. If we do not have a sponsor for these salutes in the future, we plan to continue them on the same merit on which they originated."
The Red Wings have not yet returned calls for comment.