Bettors iced by lockout

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Think the lockout is ending any time soon?

Don't bet on it. In fact, you CAN'T bet on it.

This is normally the time of year when hockey fans sharpen their pencils, pull out their money and put their statistics and hunches to the test at the Sport Select betting counter.

It's become an annual rite of winter in Canada, picking upsets, nailing down favourites, configuring the overs and unders and sniffing out ties, those glorious, odds-inflating ties.

Usually.

This year the Pro-Line booths are as quiet as the hockey rinks. With the exception of the Sunday rush on NFL game day, there's nothing for the players to really sink their teeth (and money) into. If the lockout goes all season, as many expect, it could cut a $75 million swath through the Canadian gaming industry.

On the Prairies alone, hockey wagering represents $24 million a year in sales for the Western Canada Lottery Corporation. British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have also been generating eight-figure action on the NHL. Now that delicious little resource pool is drying up.

AN IMPACT FOR SURE

"There will be an impact because we're estimating about 50 per cent of our total Pro-Line wagering is on hockey," said Teresa Roncon, manager of public affairs for Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. "That's very significant."

In Alberta, gamblers usually lay down about $13.5 million worth of hockey bets with Sports Select - of that the WCLC forwards some $4.5 million to the provincial government - which funnels it to charities and non-profit organizations.

"Alberta is the top selling province in the region," said John Matheson, spokesperson for the Western Canada Lottery Corporation, which oversees Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Territories. "With two hockey teams there's a lot of interest."

The gaming people, to their credit, saw this coming and have tried their best to soften the lockout's impact on the gamblers and the charities.

ADVANCE NOTICE

"Given the advance notice of the lockout we took a look at opportunities to add more games given the fact that hockey might not be available," said Matheson.

"So we started to offer some things that we've never offered in the past. Things like NFL pre-season and English Premier League soccer. We've started to offer college football. And we're going to be adding U.S. college basketball in November. So there's three additional sports to try and offset some of those lost revenues."

It's helping. With the NFL, a gaming cash cow if there ever was one, to anchor betting lines for fall and early winter, and the addition of soccer and NCAA action, Sport Select can still operate at between 50 and 64 per cent efficiency without hockey.

"American football and Canadian football have really grown," said Matheson. "They've increased more than anything else."

But what about after the Super Bowl and World Series? "We doubt Clemson-UCONN roundball will generate the same buzz as an NHL stretch drive.

"We're taking a look at pretty much any sport that we feel might have some value," said Matheson.

"We're going to offset some of (the losses), but nobody knows how long they're going to be out. There's no risk to Sport Select, we're just disappointed, like everyone else, that the game isn't on the ice."

Taking bets on American Hockey League games, or the CHL, is not in the plans. They're too difficult for fans and oddsmakers to track. And if the NHL comes back with replacement players, well, that's an unstable river they hope they never have to cross.

"We would just wait and take a look at what was involved there and see if we could set odds that we'd be comfortable with," said Matheson, adding last-minute roster changes could really leave the oddsmakers vulnerable.

"Our game is intended as recreational; we don't change the odds. Once they're set they stay out there for four days. So anything we offer, no matter what sport, we have to feel that the odds we're offering are correct and will be correct right up until game time."


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