What in­tegrity con­cerns?

NHL singing new tune when it comes to le­gal­ized bet­ting

Simcoe Reformer - Times-Reformer - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON

Would it shock you to learn that the NHL has said some­thing that was later proven to be just a lit­tle dis­hon­est? I know, I know: It would not. This is the league that rags the puck on con­cus­sion law­suits and still in­sists that Phoenix — sub­ur­ban Phoenix! — is a bet­ter hockey mar­ket than Que­bec City.

But, still. Here are some com­ments from se­nior NHL types at their an­nounce­ment of the league’s new part­ner­ship with casino gi­ant MGM Re­sorts, one which makes the NHL the of­fi­cial sports bet­ting part­ner of MGM: “We have no con­cerns about the in­tegrity of our game, of our play­ers, our of­fi­cials,” said ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent Keith Wach­tel, via the As­so­ci­ated Press. “We’ve never had an is­sue.

“We mon­i­tor all of the games,” said com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman. “We watch what goes on, whether or not bet­ting lines shift and the like ... It hasn’t been an is­sue and we don’t an­tic­i­pate it be­ing an is­sue.” So, not an in­tegrity is­sue, then. Here was the NHL just a few years back, when the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment was con­sid­er­ing pas­sage of a bill that would have le­gal­ized sin­gle-sports wa­ger­ing in this coun­try:

“We firmly be­lieve that le­gal­ized sports bet­ting threat­ens to com­pro­mise (our) in­tegrity, and that the sin­gle-game bet­ting scheme that the bill seeks to de­crim­i­nal­ize poses a par­tic­u­lar­ized and unique threat in that re­gard,” the league wrote in a sub­mis­sion to the Se­nate. It also said that sin­gle-game bet­ting “poses per­haps the great­est threat to the in­tegrity of our games.”

That was in 2012. The bill, which would have re­moved the line in the Crim­i­nal Code that for­bids bet­ting on spe­cific con­test or event, had al­ready passed the House of Com­mons but was stuck in the Se­nate for the usual vague and opaque Se­nate rea­sons.

The NHL kept on op­pos­ing it for years, say­ing it was “stead­fastly op­posed” to any gam­bling-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties tied to NHL games. Even­tu­ally, the bill died, as all on­go­ing leg­is­la­tion was wiped out by the 2015 fed­eral elec­tion.

The NHL’s po­si­tion has ev­i­dently evolved, to put it char­i­ta­bly. In­tegrity con­cerns? Why, that’s so much pif­fle and pop­py­cock. I am para­phras­ing here.

“That was an in­ter­est­ing one, to say the least,” says Paul Burns of the Cana­dian Gam­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, with a chuckle that sounds at least a touch rue­ful. He re­mem­bers when NHL ex­ec­u­tives swore up and down that any as­so­ci­a­tion with gam­bling would tear the very fab­ric of the league asun­der, and now there they were in New York wav­ing away any such con­cerns.

Not that he is sur­prised it has come to that. With the U.S. Supreme Court hav­ing ef­fec­tively struck down the fed­eral law against sportswa­ger­ing in that coun­try and states free to le­gal­ize it if they choose, sports leagues are com­ing around fast to fi­nally ad­mit­ting that gam­bling is good for their busi­ness.

NBA com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver led the way on le­gal­ized gam­bling, call­ing for it first in 2015, and his league was also the first to sign a part­ner­ship with MGM. The NHL is merely fol­low­ing suit.

“The leagues are re­al­iz­ing that it’s a new rev­enue source,” said Burns.

A po­ten­tially huge rev­enue source, at that. Ad­vo­cates for in­creased le­gal­ized sports gam­bling in­sists that the il­le­gal mar­ket in North Amer­ica is mea­sured in bil­lions of dol­lars, and they say that even if pro leagues never take a dol­lar of ac­tual wa­gers, they stand to make mil­lions more just from the in­creased in­ter­est in their games that le­gal bet­ting would gen­er­ate. (Sports wa­ger­ing is, of course, al­ready le­gal in Canada, but only through pro­vin­cial lot­ter­ies that of­fer multi-event par­lay events at ter­ri­ble odds.)

What­ever one thinks of the NHL’s mo­ti­va­tions, the end re­sult is a changed land­scape should Par­lia­ment con­sider the ques­tion of gam­bling laws again. Burns notes that pre­vi­ous at­tempts to le­gal­ize sin­gle-sport bet­ting had prov­inces, busi­ness groups, labour groups and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties on side, all of them keen to tap a new source of rev­enue.

Leagues like the NHL “were the last stake­holder of any sig­nif­i­cance that was say­ing no,” Burns said. “And they are not any­more.”

With a fed­eral elec­tion less than a year away, could Canada do with leg­is­la­tion what the United States did in the courts and es­sen­tially free Canada’s gam­blers? There should be no lack of sup­port for such a move.

Pre­vi­ous at­tempts at gam­bling le­gal­iza­tion came via NDP mem­bers of par­lia­ment try­ing to boost casino op­er­a­tions in Wind­sor and Ni­a­gara Falls. The Con­ser­va­tives would the­o­ret­i­cally sup­port sports wa­ger­ing for pro-busi­ness rea­sons. And the Lib­er­als un­der Justin Trudeau just le­gal­ized cannabis for a lot of the same rea­sons ad­vanced in favour of le­gal wa­ger­ing: Safer reg­u­la­tion, more tax rev­enue, and the end of a bur­geon­ing black mar­ket.

The NHL’s pearl-clutch­ing on gam­bling has al­ways been a bit rich. It has long had own­ers with gam­ing in­vest­ments, it em­braced the daily-fan­tasy ex­plo­sion even as it pre­tended that such things were not, tech­ni­cally, gam­bling, and then it gave a fran­chise to Las Ve­gas that would play in an arena at­tached to a casino. At that point, the jig was pretty much up. This week’s news of a for­mal gam­bling part­ner­ship is just the fi­nal step.

And so, the NHL is of­fi­cially cool with sports gam­bling now. Let us see how long it takes the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to fol­low suit.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

In this May 28 file photo, NHL Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence prior to Game 1 of the NHL Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal hockey game be­tween the Ve­gas Golden Knights and the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals in Las Ve­gas.

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