Oilers players open to possibilities of NHL’s foray into sports betting

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and MGM chairman Jim Murren announce a sports betting partnership, and discuss all the excitement and opportunity that will come out of this agreement.

EDMONTON — Sharing data, altering the way National Hockey League teams report injuries, the spectre of match fixing and a chance to put a dent in escrow.

The hockey world is wondering about the ramifications of the league’s announcement that it will partner up with MGM on a gambling scheme, but no one more so than the players who will become human prop bets if this initiative goes ahead as expected.

We took a tour through the Edmonton Oilers dressing room this week and asked around on the topic of gambling. We were greeted by mostly hesitant players who, like the rest of us, have far more questions than answers about how this whole thing is going to unfold.

“I think hockey is a very untapped market. People don’t even play fantasy hockey much, compared to football,” said the Oilers NHL Players’ Association representative, centre Ryan Strome. “If someone has a little more invested on the game they’re going to cheer louder, be more into it, and maybe it will make the game more interesting for them.

“Our team does a little football pool on Sunday. It makes the games more interesting for us, so…”

OK, so let’s dig into this a little bit.

What about injury disclosure? If a bettor wagers $1,000 on a game (in Canada we can’t do single game betting yet, but eventually that will change), and finds out after the pre-game warmups that his team’s best player is out of the lineup that night, that isn’t fair.

Today, teams will tell the media that Elias Petersson, say, is missing the morning skate for a “maintenance day.” Then, after pre-game warmups, they’ll scratch the player with some nebulous “upper-body injury.” That uncertainty will inhibit betting, and you know the NHL’s gambling partners will call for more honest and open reporting of injuries — the way the NFL does it, for instance.

“It’s a valid point,” said Strome. “I just don’t see the NHL mandating that (change). But, we’re flying across the world to play games now, so maybe nothing is out of the question.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league does not plan to change its injury disclosure protocol to entice more gambling. But money talks, and we guarantee you, if gamblers cannot even be sure that the best players are playing, the gambling handle will suffer.

“From a team perspective, I just don’t see the benefit in that,” said goalie Cam Talbot. “Sometimes, it actually IS a game-time decision.”

OK. But sometimes it’s not.

“That’s fair too,” he allows. “To encourage betting, I could see them trying to change that. But I don’t see the benefit of exposing an injury … that other teams could take advantage of.”

Let’s talk match fixing. We asked Talbot, because he’s a goalie. That is likely the one position that could affect a result the most.

“I think guys have too much pride to throw a game,” he said. “I don’t know any hockey player who doesn’t play for the guy next to him, and if you’re going out to throw a game, no one is going to want to play for you. Especially if you’re a goalie.

“You give up a weak one, on purpose? They’re going to know. Guys are not going to lay down their body for you. I would never do that.”

Of course. But it happens in other sports, and often, it involves pressure from organized crime.

The NHL has seen examples of Russian or Eastern European players who have been extorted by the mafia back home. Their families are threatened, and they are instructed to pay what amounts to a “protection fee.”

That is how, theoretically, a player would fall into match fixing in an NHL game. Not necessarily because he has anything to gain, but because he has something very precious to lose.

Although those influences are not specific to hockey, the international nature of the NHL would make those cases more difficult to deal with.

“Gambling overall has almost become a problem back home,” said Swedish defenceman Oscar Klefbom. “So many people are gambling on games. Thank God there haven’t been that many incidents where players are betting on their own games, but there have been a couple.”

I covered a World Championship in Austria that featured betting kiosks in the arena concourse. Bettman says we should not expect that in the NHL but the New Jersey Devils just announced a deal with a local casino that will see a “gambling lounge” appear in their arena.

In Edmonton a full-blown casino is under the same roof as the Rogers Place, a popular pre- and post-game stop for fans.

As for player tracking, this is another vague area. The league has toyed with putting some type of data recording device inside players’ jerseys for years, to collect data that was originally intended as analytics to be used on broadcasts. Now, Bettman says that data will help MGM to create more creative betting avenues.

“I think everyone would like a Connor McDavid prop bet, on how fast he skates,” said Strome.

Well, Connor?

“If it’s going to help grow hockey revenue, then why not?” he said. “You look at baseball, and the whole thing is exit speed that everyone wants to know about. That wasn’t in place 20 years ago. You’re seeing all these sports find different, interesting ways to give up information.

“I’m not a big numbers guy. I don’t care how fast I’m going, as long a I can beat the guy. As long as I’m going fast enough, that’s all that matters.”

What people would want to know is how fast was McDavid going when he turn-styled Ryan Suter Tuesday night in Edmonton. A prop bet might be, will McDavid reach that speed in a coming period?

What exactly is that number?

“I have no idea,” McDavid said. “Couldn’t even tell ya.”

The common player concern is that the data will find its way into contract talks. A GM could say, “We see your average speed and the speed of your shot has declined for three straight years now.”

But, we suppose, if the NHLPA were privy to the same analytics, agents could use the stats that are favorable to their clients as well when negotiating a contract.

Betting is coming, and a decade from now, who knows how ingrained wagering could become inside the nightly hockey viewing experience?

How do we know this? Because it will bring in money, and if there is one common thread between the owners and the players, it is a love for more hockey-related revenues.

“Any kind of HRR would be beneficial and help us bring down escrow, which would be huge for us,” said Talbot. “But it all depends on what you’re being asked to give up.”

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