When I was a kid we played a lot of pond hockey, and all the young players identified with a particular NHL hockey hero. We wore our favorite player’s jersey number on our backs. In my case it was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dave Keon, number 14, the winner with his team of four Stanley Cups. Call me nostalgic, but on the pond, we sharpened our skills and learned to skate like the wind.
Today, kids’ adoration of sports heroes and the glory of sport may not be quite as pure. The NHL season is now underway, and as we speak, youth are being lured into betting on sports, by of all people, their hockey idols.
This would be bad enough for our national sport, but this betting is doing much more harm because of the phenomenon of “push betting.” If a youth (or an adult) places a bet on a particular game, the bettor is texted by a representative of a sports betting company and urged to bet still more, given the score of the game thus far.
A bettor who knows his team might calculate that the game will turn out his or her way. Sometimes it does, often it doesn’t. As is always the case in betting, the possibility of winning more is addictive, and will usually end up in losses for the bettor. For young people getting in over their head and not knowing when to fold ‘em, can be crushing.
Today, top hockey players, including Connor McDavid, arguably the world’s best hockey player, are receiving big contracts from sports betting companies to promote this dangerous new side of sport. Other players like the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, and fondly remembered past players like The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, are also deeply involved.
In a television ad, Matthews urged fans: “Bet on yourself.” Matthews likely didn’t mean that it is okay for athletes deliberately to change the outcome of games. But Matthews’ comment does conjure up memories of Pete Rose, an exciting Major League Baseball (MLB) player with the nickname Mr. Hustle who had 4,256 career hits. MLB has rightly turned down Rose several times for entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball during his playing and managing career with the Cincinnati Reds.
Bruce Kidd, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and one of the country’s best-ever middle-distance runners, is taking a lead role in a movement to ban sports betting in our country. Kidd argues that gambling is strangling the beauty of sport for young people, especially younger teens. Afterall, youth under 15 years old represent 10 per cent of the audience for sports on television.
Kidd notes that sports betting has skyrocketed in Canada since 2021 when the federal government lifted its ban on single-game sports betting. That enabled provinces like Ontario to legalize it in their province. Now facing pressure, the Ontario government is talking about curbing the use of sports celebrities in sports betting. I would not rush to place a bet on that happening, too much money is in the till for the Ontario government, $546 million for just the first quarter of this year.
Many sports announcers on television are also deeply involved in the mix, benefiting financially, and relying on oddsmakers in how they commentate on games.
It is well known that gambling can lead to addiction, and contribute to a variety of ills, including bankruptcy, depression, suicide, and the break-up of families.
Canada is a country of deep sport loyalties. For instance, the Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, 56 years ago. Some hockey fans like to needle the diehard Leafs fans, including this writer, because of the long drought. But should we expect that to change? Will we see hockey fans become primarily betters, who bet against “their team” if the odds are not good for a cash payout?
This does not sound like the pond hockey many of us were fortunate enough to enjoy as kids. Bruce Kidd is all for the kids, and I say Bravo Bruce!