31 Thoughts: The hidden benefits of NHL’s big gambling bet

Kyle Bukauskas caught up with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss how the Supreme Court ruling on sports gambling forced the league to change it's position, and allow fans the equal opportunity to engage and connect to their game.

• NHL pushing for player, puck tracking
• Leafs, Nylander at a “deadlock”
• 2019 UFA defenceman market thinning down

After years of avoidance, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman threw on his wetsuit and dove head first into gambling waters.

Here’s what we know: The league followed the NBA’s imprint of a non-exclusive deal with MGM, which allows for multiple partnerships with different casinos and online betting companies. The NHL is not getting a piece of the “book,” simply a flat fee for MGM getting to use its trademarks, logos and eventually, data. (The basketball contract with MGM is reportedly three years and $25 million.)

In Canada, this doesn’t affect us yet. We can’t do single-game wagering. There’s no doubt my employer is dreaming of a future where you can watch the game on your phone, iPad, laptop or TV — and place a bet at the touch of a button. Connor McDavid gets tripped. As part of the broadcast, a question pops up: “Do the Oilers score on this power play?” You say yes or no, then pick the amount you want to wager before the puck is dropped to resume play. Those days will come.

When the Vegas Golden Knights were brought into the NHL, Bettman wasn’t thrilled with the idea of betting kiosks in the arena. The Commissioner pointed out Monday that they still aren’t necessary, as fans can use apps on mobile devices to place their bets. But, the New Jersey Devils just announced they are creating a special betting lounge in Prudential Center with online sportsbook William Hill. That state has legalized gambling, and it will be interesting to see if other arenas create their own lounges as more become eligible to do so. That adds another revenue source for owners, a place to go eat, drink and bet even when the hockey team isn’t playing.

Bettman shrugged off an American Gaming Association study claiming legal sports betting could produce an additional $216 million (USD) in annual revenue. That includes advertising dollars, but it sure doesn’t sound like anyone is predicting massive immediate returns. Nevada Gaming Control’s annual report for 2017 indicated that the overall handle at the state’s sportsbooks was $4.8 billion (USD), a record for the eighth consecutive year.

It is not easy to determine how much of that comes from hockey, although it is recognized to be the lowest of the four top North American team sports. The NGC stated that $1.7 billion of the total was from the NFL and NCAA football; $1.4 billion on the NBA and NCAA basketball; $1.1 billion from MLB. The NHL is part of the “other” category. That total was $214 million in 2017.

That same American Gaming study referenced above had another interesting prediction: that fan engagement on betting could lead to increased revenue from annual media rights. How many people will be more interested in or attracted to hockey now that you can bet on it?

At last year’s Sloan Sports Conference in Boston, I met Rob Pizzola, who calls himself “a semi-pro sports bettor.” Rob’s being a little modest. His stuff is pretty interesting. He likes to bet hockey. What was his reaction?

“The biggest thing for me is how Bettman’s done a 180-degree turn from his previous position on gambling,” he said Monday. “But he recognized the future. Now you can expand hockey. With the data, [the sportsbooks] will be more confident in the things they can do.”

Pizzola is referring to individual prop bets. In the NFL, you can do one quarterback versus another — who will throw for more yards. One running back versus another — who will run for more yards. The information the books have, the more they trust their ability to set the proper lines, to get more bets out there, to do things as fast as possible.

Crosby vs. Matthews vs. McDavid vs. Ovechkin. You can do it more than 10 times a year.

That’s all about the data. The real-time feed.

The NHL has fooled around with puck and player tracking for years. Initially, it was for broadcast purposes. Along the way, the league realized the greater possibilities. Sportvision was the partner for both the 2015 All-Star Game in Columbus and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

SMT purchased Sportvision in October 2016, and remains involved, having written the HITS scoring system for NHL.com. It has an excellent reputation, creators of football’s yellow first-down line and MLB’s PITCH/fx strike-zone tracking system. But the league wasn’t crazy about its chip-infused puck at the World Cup. In addition, the NHL initially preferred to avoid placing chips on players for regular-season usage.

That appears to be changing. According to multiple sources, the league is testing a radio-based chip system for both the puck and players. Bettman has linked the Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute as a potential puck creator, and that company’s Jogmo project “researches in the field of radio tracking systems,” according to its website.

It is believed that some of the testing is being done with players on UNLV’s club team. The league wants it ready for 2019–20 and wishes to announce it at the All-Star Game in San Jose in January. But there is still more testing to be done, and SMT’s resources might be too important to ignore.

Because MGM is not an exclusive partner, the NHL can sell this information to others. Data rules the world, so that’s valuable stuff. The headlines will focus on the bets; the true value is the matrix.

That’s what must be done right.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Every time a league meets about gambling, the concerns are the same. They don’t want scandal. Even with hockey’s extremely successful move into Las Vegas, they’re worried. You’re never going to be 100 per cent safe, but there are a couple of things to note. First, many point-shaving or betting scandals are caught by the bookmakers themselves. They notice unusually high amounts or odd line movements.

The sport of tennis is going through a painful period of match-fixing. It was online-wagering company Betfair that alerted authorities in the first set of a 2008 match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello that way too much money was being bet. Davydenko retired and the investigation was on.

Another online bookmaker, Pinnacle, reached out last July when unusual patterns occurred before a Wimbledon doubles match. They have financial incentive to make sure things are properly done. The other consideration is that most of tennis’s problems occur in smaller Challenger events, well out of the public eye. The Wimbledon concern is very rare, even though an obscure doubles match was flagged for match-fixing this past summer.

In 2012, CBC’s Diana Swain reported on Canadian Soccer League games being fixed by a European crime syndicate. I asked her why someone would do that, and she basically replied that it’s not something you’d think anyone would notice. Nothing is foolproof, but we’ve come a long way in the 100 years since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series.

2. Equal time: In case you missed it Tuesday, Edmonton’s Zack Kassian addressed our report that he (and agent Rick Curran) had permission to talk to other teams for a potential fresh start.

“I didn’t go in and ask for a trade by any means,” he told reporters. “I definitely don’t need a fresh start…. But at the end of the day, your agent has a job to do. If you get healthy scratched he’s going to make a phone call to the GM and see what’s going on….. There has been indirect conversation that other teams might be interested and he was granted permission to talk to them.”

Kassian added that “the first thing I did as soon as the rumour came out was address all the guys in this room. That’s all I truly care about. Hopefully, it just goes to rest now.”

3. With Nate Schmidt and Ryan Ellis’s recent extensions, the unrestricted free agent market for defenders thinned-down a bit. At the top of the class are Erik Karlsson, Tyler Myers and Jake Gardiner. One name to watch: Nick Leddy of the Islanders. He’s not free, but the talented puck-mover has three more seasons at a reasonable $5.5M. GM Lou Lamoriello’s not going to tell us his plans, but he will be asked about them.

4. As Nick Kypreos reported on Headlines, Kevin Hayes is a logical possibility for Winnipeg. A centre, and, like the departed Paul Stastny, a lefty. They won’t be the only chasers, and there’s no guarantee the Rangers are in any hurry.

5. One coaching future to keep an eye on: AHL Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe. His contract expires after this season. There’ve been brief negotiations, but no resolution.

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6. While Maple Leaf fans obsessed about defencemen, coach Mike Babcock worried about the middle. Before John Tavares was signed, and when they knew Tyler Bozak was likely gone, Babcock made it clear he felt that position was a bigger need. With Auston Matthews out, Toronto down the middle is Tavares/Nazem Kadri/Par Lindhom/Frederik Gauthier.

7. One rumour that unfortunately turned out to be untrue because it would have made a neat story: Minnesota owner Craig Leipold going overseas to meet dynamic Russian prospect Kirill Kaprizov. The 135th pick in the 2015 draft is quite a find for the Wild, a real talent. When he signed a new KHL contract before last season, the organization recognized it needed to do a better job of recruiting him. Then-GM Chuck Fletcher went to see him and begin the pitch. Kaprizov has one more year to go, and there was interesting gossip that the owner himself would make the trip. Leipold had summer hip surgery, making that difficult, but, under Paul Fenton, the Wild will do everything it can to get the player to North America.

8. Weekly William Nylander update: it’s a deadlock. Neither side is moving. I don’t think Toronto is ready to trade him yet, but they know it’s time to start considering what could be out there. It’s not a coincidence Kyle Dubas’s travels took him to see Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Carolina — all of whom could be a fit. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Toronto targeted teams it believes are a fit instead of going public with a “sale” sign.

9. Elias Pettersson is shooting 43.8 per cent. The best rookie number in NHL history is Warren Young’s 30.5 in 1984–85. Second? Rob Brown’s 30.0 in 1987–88. Major difference between them and Pettersson? The latter doesn’t have Mario Lemieux passing it to him.

10. After a very difficult night in Arizona, including a 150-foot goal by Derek Stepan, Ottawa may put goalie Mike Condon on waivers. Condon, like many athletes, battled confidence issues on his winding route to the NHL, and found value in self-help books like The Hidden Game of Tennis. Before the 2017–18 season, there was a real battle to get him, with Ottawa going three years because Toronto made a serious push. The best thing for him now is to play, regain his rhythm. That’s why AHL Belleville is a wise option, simply to get him going.

11. NHL Hockey Operations said it would keep a close eye on teams that were guilty of “slow changes,” delaying the game when their players needed a breather. Washington was hit with a penalty for it last Thursday in Edmonton. Officials felt they took too long after icing the puck.

12. Over the years, we’ve seen some unusual help afforded to the on-ice officials.

There was Pittsburgh scoreboard freeing Sidney Crosby from a tripping penalty when it showed Johnny Oduya falling on his own stick:

There was Mike Babcock using bench monitors to convince referees that it was the puck, not Roman Polak’s stick, that connected with Jonathan Huberdeau’s face:

Monday night in Vancouver, the Situation Room and penalty-box official “helped” make sure Erik Gudbranson was properly fingered for high-sticking Zach Parise:

Technically, these are not the rules, but as someone who a) tends to ignore rules and b) believes in getting it right, I don’t have a problem with this. Canucks fans were upset this safeguard didn’t prevent Antoine Roussel from avoiding an undeserved high-sticking penalty Saturday against Pittsburgh. But one executive/conspiracy theorist hypothesized Monday’s assistance occurred for exactly that reason, because the league would have seen that miss and wanted to prevent it in the future. Cue the X-Files music.

13. One of 2018–19’s early-season mysteries is, “What’s up with Calgary’s schedule?” The Flames are in the midst of their second two-game eastern road trip. Last week, it was the Rangers and Montreal, with a day in between. This week, it’s a back-to-back in Toronto and Buffalo. There are two more on the way: Chicago/Columbus in December; and Washington/Carolina out of their extended All-Star Break. (Both have a day between games.)

This is extremely unusual. You rarely see an eastern team go through western Canada without playing all of the Canucks, Flames and Oilers. So what gives? You’ll remember GMs were annoyed at how those five-day breaks worked last season, with 26 teams teams returning from them facing opponents who hadn’t been frolicking on Caribbean beaches. The returnees went 8-14-4. The GMs voted for change at their March meeting, putting half the teams on vacation before All-Star and half after. Seemed like a good compromise, but it was late for putting together the schedule and there was risk someone would suffer.

Edmonton going overseas (and wisely asking to stay east for a few games afterwards) also hurt Calgary, because when one goes on the road, it is not beneficial for scheduling to have the other at home. So the Flames were in a rough spot. Their travel milage is up from normal. Where they did get help was in back-to-backs and three-games-in-four-nights scenarios. I counted 10 of the former, and 11 of the latter — which is low. (I think that’s second-fewest for both.) Additionally, that should result in fewer “schedule losses,” where your opponent is sitting in wait while you play the night before. That’s the trade-off. If they can survive these early speedbumps coming off their return from China, there are schedule benefits to come.

14. After the 9–1 beatdown from the Penguins, the Flames re-committed to better defensive play away from the puck, and, as one player said, “not being so stupid with our reads. Pittsburgh killed us on the rush.”

The result was five out of six points against Washington, Toronto and Buffalo. The win over the Maple Leafs was their best performance of the young season. My grandmother used to have a saying: “You plan, God laughs.” Flames coach Bill Peters said Monday a goal over the next couple of weeks is to let his forward lines stick together and grow chemistry. That night, it went Johnny Gaudreau/Sean Monahan/Elias Lindholm; Matthew Tkachuk/Mikael Backlund/Michael Frolik; Sam Bennett/Mark Jankowski/James Neal; and Dillon Dube/Derek Ryan/Garnet Hathaway. The lines stayed mostly intact, with the exception of Frolik, who dropped from 15:22 the first night to 7:58 the second.

15. One Flame in a better headspace: Bennett. His ice time is climbing since the first week of October, his role more important. He met with GM Brad Treliving and Peters. “They told me I’m an important part of the team,” Bennett said. “That’s what you want to hear.”

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16. There’s a lot of debate about how much Mike Smith’s puckhandling helps Calgary. Brian Burke said the team’s analytics staff indicated that, last season, defencemen were hit 120 fewer times over the first 20 games because of Smith’s skill.

17. Always Look on the Bright Side Award: Travis Hamonic said he didn’t lose too much weight from his smashed jaw because “missing my front teeth, I was able to get my straw in there pretty good.”

18. Crazy stat of the week: 15 years ago, entering the 2003–04 season, Paul Maurice — then with Carolina — was the longest-serving coach in NHL. (Now, he’s third behind Joel Quenneville and Jon Cooper.)

19. The late Pat Quinn said there were three season-ending defeats that haunted him: 1980 Philadelphia (lost the Stanley Cup 4–2 to the Islanders); 2001 Toronto (lost the Eastern semifinal 4–3 to New Jersey); and 2002 Toronto (lost the Eastern Final 4–2 to Maurice’s Hurricanes). He believed those teams were good enough to win. Does Maurice feel that way about the 2018 Jets, who ran out of gas in the Western Final against Vegas?

“This is not a shot against Toronto,” he answered. “But the 2002 Detroit Red Wings are the best team I’ve ever seen on the ice. I don’t think if you put our team, Colorado and Toronto together, you beat them.”

Then, he continued: “The answer is yes. Not because we deserved it — they beat us. They were better than we were. We had spent so much to get there, we were a half-step off of what we did. So what haunts me about that is it’s my job to find that half-step…. I didn’t find that, so it bothers me. It was August 8 of this summer where I got over it. I put my two boys in the car and drove across the north shore of Lake Superior, realized how beautiful it was. From that point, I’ve been in a great mood.”

20. Maurice admitted he’s never coached a team with more expectation than this one. He haggled about one thing we asked him, to discuss his exchanges with certain players in their exit interviews. “Those are private conversations,” he said, before agreeing to give a general outline. First, Connor Hellebuyck: “Connor and I would have spoken a number of times the year prior. I pulled him about five times. He struggled with that. Confidence. Finding his game. We talked over-and-over about it being such a necessary part of his development.”

Maurice said the Jets told Hellebuyck about other great goalies who suffered through similar disappointments at the same age.

“So he had this [excellent 2017-18], and then of course there’s the caveat at the end. For greatness now, it becomes who you are. How you prepare. Whatever you did last summer was good enough, and now we gotta get better. It was more a congratulations, but certainly not a, ‘Your career’s over.’ It’s just starting.”

21. Mark Scheifele: “So Mark goes into Game 3 in the (first-round) Minnesota series. I don’t think he has a shot attempt. And he goes on to set the NHL (playoff) record for road goals. He was playing hard, he was running around trying to hit everything. Then he just settled his game.”

The relationship between coach and No. 1 centre has evolved.

“Mark would probably tell you I was very hard on him his first couple of years. We started talking more maybe as colleagues a little bit last year…. So these things you did so very well that we talked about in the playoffs? That will be what we talk about every day — if we need to — (in 2018-19).”

22. Patrik Laine: “He’s a very naturally powerful man — you’ll see him at times holding guys off. We think that can become a bigger part of his game. More Jagr in his game. I’m not comparing the two players, but what Jaromir can do so very well is control the puck under the pressure — to the point he invited that. He’d turn in that corner and wait for that defenceman to get on his back, and then he would go.”

That’s the next level the Jets want Laine to hit.

“He’s going to go through his slumps, he’s going to think he’s the worst player in the world. Then he’s going to score for 16 straight games,” Maurice laughed. “But there’s a style of game we’d like to see him develop and that’s a puck-control game.”

The Jets hope home cooking energizes Laine. They dropped him down the lineup in Detroit and Toronto, trying to get him going. They were concerned about him going to Finland in a slump, dumping even more pressure on his shoulders. One of the theories was that maybe he’d have better chances against depth players. But Laine hasn’t looked right. He hasn’t shown the same enthusiasm and/or passion we’re used to. Winnipeg’s using both good-cop and bad-cop tactics to get him going — at the same time.

23. Last one from Maurice: as a 51-year-old in his 25th season of being a head coach, does he ever think of a day where he’s not doing this job? The short answer is no, although he joked, “There’s the occasional glimpse in the fishing boat in the middle of August, where you wonder what the fishing’s like in the fall. But, honest to God, I feel like I just got here.”

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24. Nikolaj Ehlers broke his 26-game goalless streak, scoring from right in front of the net. He’d been told to be creative, find some new places to score, because defences were taking away the old ones. Hopefully for him, that’s a start.

25. Edmonton’s rise last week — seven of eight points against Pittsburgh, Washington, Nashville and Chicago — was driven by McDavid, but he got the necessary support from Leon Draisaitl. Prior to the Penguins’ game, the Oilers didn’t have a single goal at any strength when Draisaitl was out there and McDavid wasn’t. That changed in those four games, with five such goals. At five-on-five, the Oilers were outscored 6-1 with Draisaitl on the ice pre-Pittsburgh. Up to and including Tuesday’s loss to Minnesota, the numbers were reversed. Edmonton needs him driving a line of his own.

26. Great story from Scott Oake: With the Penguins in Vancouver, Canucks assistant coach (and fishing champion) Nolan Baumgartner asked through the equipment staff for a Sidney Crosby stick. Crosby said he’d do it, as long as Baumgartner returned the favour. The coach thought he was being pranked, but Crosby, who knows everything, was well aware of Baumgartner’s junior success — two Memorial Cups with WHL Kamloops. Crosby, who lost in the 2005 final with QMJHL Rimouski, signed the stick with “jealous of your Memorial Cups!” Baumgartner told Oake he was thinking of signing his stick with, “‘Jealous of your two Olympic Golds, three Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies, two Rocket Richards, three Ted Lindsays and two Art Ross’ — but there wasn’t enough room on the stick.”

27. Meanwhile, Kelly Hrudey, who was between the benches for Pittsburgh’s 9-1 win over the Flames, said Crosby was angry at a bad shift when the score was 7–0. “I hate these games!” he yelled while taking a seat.

28. Claude Julien doesn’t think it’s a huge deal, just evolving with the times, but what the Canadiens are doing now bears almost no resemblance to what we were used to seeing from him.

When Boston won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Bruins had the simplest breakout in the NHL. It went “D-to-D,” with the forwards going up-ice in straight lines. By keeping the weak-side winger wide, opponents found it difficult to forecheck. I remember one opposing coach saying Boston could beat you keeping it simple because they were so good. As time went on, Julien brought that weak-side winger across and overloaded the forecheck/neutral zone. Now, almost no one goes D-to-D. The Canadiens use the middle of the ice much more, and, from what I’ve been able to see, rarely blow the zone until sure it is getting cleared. Adapt or die.

29. Another example of how times have changed: the 10-game limit for an entry-level contract. It used to be such a big story, that a prospect was burning the first year. Now, teams care more about a young player being on the roster for 40 games, because that means credit towards salary arbitration and free agency. That’s the true hurdle for players like Detroit’s Michael Rasmussen.

30. Last Thursday, there was a charity gala to honour the memories of Don Mills Flyers goalie Roy Pejcinovski, mother Krissy and sister Vana. It was a beautiful event, highlighted by a generous crowd that snapped up live and silent auction items in donating to the Pejcinovski Family Memorial Fund (more details here). Among the celebrity guests: Brian Burke, Zach Hyman, Garret Sparks and country music singer Kira Isabella, who has some voice. All of them brought their A games. Then, there was Gerry Dee. He did a fantastic stand-up routine, then followed with one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. The final event of the night was drawing the 50-50 winner. Gerry gets up there and says, “I have a special way to do these. I like to pull two tickets. The first one is the ‘oh-so-close’ person. You almost won, but you didn’t. The second is the real winner.” I’m sitting next to him, thinking, “There’s no way he’s actually going to do this.” But he did. He grabs a ticket, reads it out, and says, “I’m sorry, you came so close!” Amidst the laughter, all I could think was, “Good thing it wasn’t my number.” Terrific evening.

31. A team president once said that when you are doing a special ceremony, whether honouring someone or a moment of silence, your greatest fear is the accidental mistake. Your heart is in the right place, but something is said wrong, or a patch becomes a social-media meme because some unintentional error gets through all the checks and balances. I can only imagine how nervous the Penguins were about getting a special symbol prepared over three days to honour the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. That’s not a lot of time. But they did an excellent job.

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