Komarov’s betting deal may change attitude towards gambling in hockey

The Montreal Canadiens clinched a playoff berth, The Maple Leafs earned a crucial two points on the road, Ottawa fell to the Wild, Winnipeg completed a comeback while Edmonton set their sights on the Pacific division crown

You never quite know what you’re going to get out of Leo Komarov.

So while it was notable, it wasn’t entirely surprising last week when the Toronto Maple Leafs winger answered a reporter’s question about whether he had perfected his on-ice poker face through playing poker, by saying: “I’m a big gambler, yeah.”

It turns out that was more than just a funny line.

Komarov is the new global ambassador for NordicBet, a European-based betting website. His sponsorship deal is the first of its kind for an active NHL player and signals a shifting attitude within the sport about affiliations with gambling.

Todd Diamond of International Sports Advisors Co., the agency that represents Komarov, said the arrangement was cleared with the Leafs front office before it was finalized.

It didn’t raise any red flags for the NHL or NHL Players’ Association, either.

“It doesn’t violate our rules as long as he isn’t directly promoting sports wagering and as long as the advertising is limited to where NordicBet’s business is legal,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet.

Komarov was actually approached by multiple betting companies, according to Diamond, and found NordicBet most appealing because it is a publicly traded company in Sweden.

“They are sensitive to the legalities and concerns of Leo,” said Diamond.

There has traditionally been a much more liberal attitude towards betting in the European sporting culture than what we have here in North America. English soccer teams such as West Ham United (Betway) and Stoke City (Bet365) carry the logos of prominent betting websites while numerous athletes have been part of individual sponsorship arrangements.

With the NHL expanding to Las Vegas starting next season, it’s reasonable to expect more of these deals to start emerging in the hockey world.

The NHL has counted Draft Kings among its sponsors the last few seasons and now Komarov will have his likeness associated with a betting house. NordicBet’s business is focused entirely in Europe at the moment but the company has an eye on eventually expanding its presence within Canada, according to brand manager Jussi Nurmi.

While tennis and soccer are popular sports for gamblers, Nurmi says that NordicBet actually sees the most action on hockey.

That led them to Komarov, a fun-loving guy who is afforded a “most interesting man in the room” level of respect around the Leafs. He’s been known to regale teammates with stories from his days serving mandatory Finnish military service and flash multiple passports on road trips – the product of being born in the former Soviet Union (in what is now Estonia) and raised in a Swedish-speaking village in Finland.

Komarov is fluent in Finnish, Swedish, English and Russian.

When a teleconference was held earlier this week to announce the sponsorship deal, he fielded questions in multiple languages. It’s worth noting that a member of the Leafs public relations staff was in attendance.

“He is by far our biggest athlete,” said Nurmi. “He plays for the biggest hockey team in the world and can speak to all of our customers in their own language.”

In addition to earning him extra money, the arrangement is ideal for Komarov. He’s a massive tennis fan and will travel to Wimbledon in July to represent NordicBet. He may also be in New York for the U.S. Open this summer.

“I just hang out, go watch,” said Komarov. “I love tennis. I play a lot of times in the summer, too, so it’s kind of a good thing for me. I’ve got a lot of different choices.”

The vast majority of his obligations to the company are structured around the summer.

He’s due to provide commentary on tennis and the IIHF World Hockey Championship for NordicBet’s website and will make in-person appearances with contest winners.

Back home in Finland, news of Komarov’s sponsorship deal made big headlines because it effectively ends his time with the national team.

A veteran of the bronze-medal winning Sochi Olympic squad and seven IIHF World Hockey Championships, he’s been a mainstay with the Lions. That likely won’t continue since the Finnish federation already has its own deal with Veikkaus, a government-run betting company, and views Komarov’s agreement as a conflict.

“It’s not up to me,” said Komarov. “We’ll see when it’s going to be closer (to the Pyeongchang Olympics) and we see what’s going to happen, but I think they banned me. I don’t really know what’s going on.”

In the here and now, he has enough to concern himself with.

The Leafs are on the verge of returning to the post-season for just the second time since 2004 and are basically playing every other night.

During the down time on road trips, you’re not likely to find him wagering too much of his own money – especially around a young group of teammates that would largely prefer to play video games instead.

“I don’t gamble that much,” Komarov said. “But, yeah, we used to play cards here with the team. We played poker and stuff like that.”

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