Time for Bettman to gamble

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

In the first round of the playoffs, the top four Eastern seeds won and the top four Western seeds lost.

In the current round another split appears to be in the making. Two favourites, two underdogs.

No, wait. The New Jersey Devils weren't really underdogs, just a lower seed than the Carolina Hurricanes. "Underdogs" is a gambling term. Gary Bettman would not be pleased.

The NHL commissioner is passionate -- some would say fanatical -- in his anti-gambling stance.

That figures.

Everywhere in North America, betting is on the increase while Bettman is going in the other direction.

This is not the only area in which he has misjudged the masses. He apparently feels that his sport enjoys such widespread success it can afford to dictate the peccadilloes of its followers.

Bettman fought tooth and nail to keep the NHL off the various provincial sports lotteries in Canada. Sports Select, Pro Line and others of that ilk raise millions of dollars for hospitals, charities, arenas and other causes. But if it were up to Bettman, they would not exist.

He lost all sense of perspective when the New Jersey police, attempting to cover up illegal gambling by one of their own, implied Wayne Gretzky might have been involved.

Instead of assuring everyone he had faith in Gretzky, Bettman rushed to his old law firm to hire a former U.S. attorney who would do "a full investigation." Then he abandoned the general managers' meeting -- in Nevada of all places -- to rush back to New York to deal with the "problem."

It has since become a peripheral issue, minor at best.

Bettman says he wants fans to follow hockey because they appreciate the game, not because they have a bet on it. That's an astonishingly naive position in today's society.

In Canada, every office has a hockey pool. People watch the game to see how their players are doing. They examine the summaries. They keep track of the injuries.

And guess what? In the process, they increase interest in the NHL and they increase the TV ratings.

This is a bad thing?

But let's be fair to Bettman. He opposes gambling only for you and me. If you own a hockey team, it's fine.

Then you can sell board ads extolling the virtues of the local casino. Or you can even own the casino if you own the Detroit Red Wings.

Wait a minute, let's clarify that one. Bettman made it clear that Wings owner Mike Ilitch couldn't own the casino. So his wife does.

Surely no husband and wife would ever discuss their business around the house. And surely Mike would never spend a penny of the money that Marian makes from the casino.

Bettman even allows his owners to accept money from Sports Select. It's among hockey's primary advertisers, not only on television, but in the arenas themselves. In Toronto, it sponsors a between-periods contest for prizes of $1,000.

Isn't that gambling?

Let's face it, gambling no longer carries the stigma it once did. The original prohibition against gambling came about because it defeated the premise of the Protestant work ethic.

But in Canada, we had Pierre Trudeau to do that for us, so it's no longer relevant.

Instead of fighting gambling, the NHL should embrace it.

It should demand accurate injury reports with equally accurate disclosures of each player's status. It should offer free statistical information to pool organizers. It could even organize its own pools.

As far as its popularity is concerned, hockey is in serious trouble in the United States.

It needs a new approach to many aspects, and gambling is one of them.

Ask yourself these two questions: Which North American league embraces gambling the most? Which league is the most successful?

The answer in both cases is the National Football League.

What more needs to be said?


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