Saturday, February 11, 2006

The NHL's Love (And Hatred) Of Gambling

The NHL is desperately trying to gain more fans in the US market. One of their strategies is to try to follow the lead of the NFL, which is largely a gambler driven league, and stamp out all ties. Each NHL game has a winner even if it requires a pointless shootout to break the tie. This makes it easier for gamblers who are not serious hockey fans to adapt to hockey. Just like in the NFL, each game has a winner and a loser. There are no ties. The problem with ties (although nobody admits it on record) is that ties made it hard for gamblers to adapt to hockey. The NHL desperately wants to gain the NFL gamblers to follow their league.

The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have shared profits with the province of Alberta on a scratch lottery ticket called "Breakaway to Win", that was set up at the teams urging to provide revenues that they claimed were needed to prevent these teams from moving to other markets.

Many Canadian provinces have Pro Line betting where people can buy through the lottery commission tickets where they bet (against the point spread) on NHL games. They share profits with NHL teams.

The Pittsburgh Penguins plan to build a new arena in Pittsburgh is to obtain a casino licence and use its profits to pay for a new arena.

Clearly, the NHL likes gambling. It likes the fans that it attracts. It likes the profits that is makes them. In fact, it does not prevent its players from gambling. They are merely prevented from gambling on NHL hockey. There are several cases of NHL players building up some rather large gambling debts. The players do have a "morals clause" in a standard contract that prevents them from engaging in illegal activities, but this clause is rarely if ever used.

The situation has changed with the Rick Tocchet financed gambling ring which is really hurting the NHL in the court of popular opinion especially because Wayne Gretzky (who is as close to NHL royalty as exists) appears to be implicated. This is illegal gambling, which was never officially OK by NHL rules, but the league turns a blind eye to illegal gambling if it attracts them new fans.

The NHL must react in a way to show the world their games are in no way compromised by any association to gambling. They must remove any suggestion of this from the game. They must do it in a way that satisfies members of the public who are not devoted hockey fans. They cannot live with the common perception that hockey games might be fixed.

Of course, at this point it is hard to know what needs to be done, because the story has not fully broken. It is easy to over or under react when the scope of the problem is still unclear.

The way the story is being released is a nightmare for the NHL. Things get released slowly over a period of several days. This keeps the story in the news. This keeps it in the public eye.

At this point, it appears that the Phoenix Coyote franchise has significant ties to illegal gambling, but likely not hockey gambling. There may be a few other teams with ties to this story, but none as significant as Phoenix. In order to make things appear cleaned up in the court of public opinion, it may me necessary to demand the sale of the Phoenix franchise and have the new ownership bring in a new GM and coach. It would be a bit of a shame to have Wayne Gretzky removed a bit from the NHL, but this may be the necessary move to keep the NHL looking like a legitimate sport in the public eye.

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