Gambling ads and the NHL: should Gretzky and McDavid do better?
In the first edition of our monthly NHL column, we look at concerns around gambling endorsements in ice hockey
The advert begins in a small hockey arena. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid sticks around after practice to take multiple shots on a nameless goaltender. Every shot finds the back of the net, naturally. Behind the glass nearby, hockey great Wayne Gretzky approaches a man who tells him, “Connor’s just finishing up, he’s going to be pumped you’re here.” No rush, Gretzky replies, glancing down at his phone, and seeing the New York Knicks have just taken the lead in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. “Come on!” Gretzky shouts in frustration, throwing McDavid off. “Trying to practice here, Wayne,” McDavid tells him. “You need it,” Gretzky replies.
Two of the biggest ever stars of ice hockey are together to promote what’s on that little screen: BETMGM, one of the latest in a plethora of sports betting sites that have, since the US and Canadian governments opened the door to single-game betting, flooded NHL broadcasts with advertising – relying on big names to do it. McDavid and Gretzky aren’t alone. Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews has his own spot, for Bet99.net, a Canadian sportsbook. They are inescapable, relentless, and for many, extremely annoying. “These gambling ads are out of hand,” one Reddit user posted in October. “We’re not even finished the first period of the Leafs game and there have already been around 10 DraftKings ads. This is ridiculous.”
As part of a recent investigation into the impacts of sports betting, using the UK as an example, the CBC asked Matthews why he’d chosen to partner with Bet99.net. “I appreciate the question, but I don’t think I’m going to get into it much, honestly,” Matthews replied, asking the reporters for “more hockey-related questions”.
Before the US legalized single-event sports betting in 2018, the NHL opposed the idea. However, the “the landscape in North America has changed,” the NHL’s chief business officer, Keith Wachtel, told Canadian parliamentarians in 2021 – specifically, “technological innovation, increased partner sophistication and … a true understanding of how a regulated legal sports market can better promote responsibility and integrity versus a non-regulated market.” As it happens, the NHL probably also figured out it can make a lot of money – as much as $216m in annual revenue, according to research from the American Gaming Association.
When it comes to guys like Matthews and McDavid, one obvious concern is that adult viewers and fans will act on these endorsements and, despite tools to set limits, become addicts. But a lot of kids watch hockey, too. Nobody, it seems – including those who pushed for the changes to Canada’s criminal code that have allowed for single-event betting, like MP Brian Masse – really thought about that. He told the CBC he was now worried about the potential impacts of the ads on kids.
What can be done?
In Canada, anyway, there might be a pathway to more stringent regulation. The CRTC, Canada’s federal telecommunications regulator, already has established rules around alcohol advertising that state it cannot contain an endorsement from “any person … who is or is likely to be a role model for minors,” including for a full 10 years after they’ve retired from that activity. This rule kicked-in in 2003, when former NHL commentator Don Cherry endorsed Molson beer. The ads were eventually pulled after complaints. I asked the CRTC whether it was considering extending its rules for alcohol endorsement to single-event sports betting. “It is the responsibility of the advertiser to ensure the legality of airing all its commercials,” a CRTC spokesperson replied. “I don’t have any further information on this issue, and am not in a position to speculate.”
On 19 January, Josh Morrissey notched his 50th point of the season, another milestone in the best year of his career. Part of what makes Morrissey’s story so compelling is that he’s had a long road to this point. After joining the Jets full-time roster in 2016-17, Morrissey typically played around 60 games a season for Winnipeg, notching somewhere between 20 and 30 points a campaign.
That’s changed this year thanks in part to a coaching regime under Rick Bowness – one that encourages a much more aggressive defense, which suits Morrissey’s style and which has helped make Winnipeg a playoff contender in the West. Morrissey credits Bowness with challenging him to take his game “to new levels”.
Here’s Morrissey with a beautiful feed to Lars Ehlers on Saturday night.
“I’m not too far removed from a couple tough seasons with family stuff going on,” Morrissey told the Winnipeg Sun earlier this month, referring to his dad’s recent death from cancer. Now Morrissey’s currently on pace for 90 points, prompting Jets’ fans to dub him “Norrissey”, a reference to the Norris trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenceman every year. It’s not out of the question that he could get it. In the meantime, he’ll have to settle for being an All-Star.
Cup chase – who’s hot
Barring a spectacular collapse in the final week of the month, the Boston Bruins will finish January as they started it: winning. They are on pace for 65 wins this season.
The Carolina Hurricanes finally welcomed Max Pacioretty, who’d been out since mid-August as he fixed and rested a torn achilles tendon – only for him to tear it again.
While Toronto were inconsistent, Tampa Bay went on a five-game winning streak through the middle of January, before losing two consecutive games to Edmonton and Calgary. Elsewhere, the New Jersey Devils snapped out of their December doldrums in their own five-game win run to bring themselves within reach of the top of the Metropolitan division.
The Dallas Stars stayed neck-and-neck with the Jets atop the Central division during a frustrating month, perhaps summed up best by Jake Oettinger’s delay-of-game penalty on 12 January in New York.
Further west, the Kraken awoke on 1 January and decided to sink opponents for eight straight games – including Boston – before finally losing to Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, goaltender Jack Campbell may have finally found his groove, backstopping five straight wins into the third week of January (with a sixth consecutive win going to backup Stuart Skinner).
Bedard chase – who’s not
At writing, Tankathon.com, a site with a running NHL draft simulator, says the Columbus Blue Jackets have the best chance (25.5%) of grabbing the first overall pick this summer (ie Connor Bedard, the 17-year-old phenom from North Vancouver). Despite taking on star Johnny Gaudreau last summer in a surprise move, Columbus have had an abysmal season. January was no different, with the Jackets’ only significant win, against Carolina, coming in a shootout.
Meanwhile, the Athletic’s calculations put Anaheim ahead in the race for Bedard. January wasn’t kind to Anaheim, either – but at least they beat Columbus. Somewhere in this race still are Chicago, where chatter continued (but didn’t get far) about where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane may end up by the trade deadline (Pacioretty’s injury might be a hint).
Clip of the month
Connor McDavid continues to learn hockey’s cheat codes and has no shame in deploying them. In mid-January in Anaheim, he showed off a spin move to net his 35th goal of the year. He’s since scored five more and, unsurprisingly, leads the league in goals and overall points.
Elsewhere around the league
Sunrise, Florida: The NHL’s All-Star Game fan vote system has proved controversial once again. The problem this time was that, well, the fans’ votes didn’t seem to count. Neither Alexander Barkov (Panthers) nor Martin Nečcas (Carolina) made the cut, much to the dismay of their fanbases, some of whom suggested the process is being rigged, but this seems unlikely. Whatever the reason, they’re unfortunate – especially for Barkov, whom the home crowd would have been excited to support. At this rate, the NHL will probably be happy to just get out of Florida intact.
Vancouver: What to say about the ongoing dysfunction in Vancouver? A new head coach might, under normal circumstances, have been greeted positively, given the team’s poor season. Not so in this case. Earlier this month, team president Jim Rutherford admitted he’d been calling other coaches, but that “all I can say is that Bruce [Boudreau] is our coach right now.” That didn’t sit well with, uh, anyone. And fans made it clear whose side they were on when it became clear that a coaching change was indeed imminent.
How that impacts incoming coach Rick Tocchet is yet to be seen, but he’s already made one promise: he’ll stay off Twitter.