Former enforcer Kevin Westgarth joins NHL head office, will help grow league in China, Europe

The Hockey News
Kevin Westgarth & Oscar Klefbom (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Kevin Westgarth & Oscar Klefbom (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

By Dan Marrazza

When we last saw Kevin Westgarth in the NHL, he was playing out the string of the 2013-14 season with the Calgary Flames, about to become just another enforcer fazed out of the game.

It didn’t garner any fanfare or attention, and occurred with not a question about concussions, headshots or the role of fighting in today’s game, but Westgarth has quietly slipped back into the NHL. He returned to the league in early February, when he was hired by the NHL league office in the role of Vice President Business Development and International Affairs, reporting to deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Westgarth, a well-read Princeton graduate who built his relationship with his current boss on the other side of the table during lockout negotiations, will work with many of the NHL’s charitable and humanitarian initiatives, while leading campaigns to expand the sport overseas.

Perhaps most interesting is that he will often be deployed to China to help grow interest in hockey leading up to that country’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

“We’re in the process of determining exactly what our plan will look like,” Westgarth recently told The Hockey News. “Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics in six years is certainly exciting for the hockey world as a whole. And the NHL, being the leader on the global stage, is excited to bring the game of ice hockey to the Chinese people and help them create a viable national team that can compete on the world stage. Obviously there’s a lot of pieces that have to be a place and we’re still in the early days.

“There’s a small, but passionate population that’s playing hockey in China right now. Last year, we had our first Chinese player drafted into the NHL in Andong Song. That will hopefully be a little bit of a catalyst in igniting some passion. We want to help them get the resources. Especially with the Winter Olympics coming along, it’s an investment. I think that would be in the league’s best interests and I think it would be in their best interests as well.”

Reading between the lines, the hire of Westgarth may be a tip of the NHL’s hand in terms of the league’s plans on continuing to send its players to the Olympics. Not to mention, because Westgarth actually finished his playing career with the Belfast Giants in the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League and has traveled throughout Europe, he has scores of first-hand experience with that continent’s hockey culture. The league will often send Westgarth to Europe to assist the NHL in ramping up its corporate presence throughout the continent. This could be an early indicator that the league is interested in hosting NHL regular-season games overseas again, after a five-year hiatus.

“Why I was excited to join the league was, moving forward I think there’s such an opportunity to grow the game and my title is particularly in international development,” Westgarth said. “I’m still very much learning, absorbing and trying to understand everything I can of how the NHL as a business works. But there’s a few things we’re working on breaking out soon.”