How Has the NHL Escaped Serious Sports Gambling Scandal, Until Now?

Last week, the National Hockey League (NHL) handed out its first ever suspension for player involvement in sports betting since the proliferation of online gambling. The Ottawa Senators’ Shane Pinto will serve a 41-game ban after investigation (and subsequent admission) revealed a violation of policy. The league’s collective bargaining agreement states that gambling on any NHL game is prohibited, but players are permitted to gamble on other sports if they choose to do so. Oddly, the league admitted that Pinto had not bet on the NHL. So why the ban? Initial reports infer that it has something to do with a third-party being permitted access to Pinto’s personal online sports betting account to make wagers. But there’s a more pressing question that we’d like to pose in light of this recent event.

How is it that the NHL has been relatively removed from gambling scandals compared to the other big leagues around America? You certainly don’t see the league in the news that much, aside from Evander Kane’s publicized gambling problems.

The NFL has had it’s fair share of gambling related suspensions of late. Moreover, there’s a long list of MLB players who have made the news for gambling scandals over the years, while some of the NBA’s most prolific players have lost millions to the house. Currently, the NCAA has been rocked by scandal more than any other athletic organization in the USA. Meanwhile, the NHL has skated under the radar, until now.

The NHL’s gambling policy is quite relaxed compared to other leagues, so the answer likely lies elsewhere. Is there something to be learned about why the NHL has appeared less vulnerable to sports betting scandals? More importantly, is it sustainable, or is last week’s news to become a more regular occurrence for the league?

Important Questions to Consider Regarding Why the NHL Has Escaped Sports Betting Scandals in the Past (and why it probably won’t be sustainable)

Does Player Nationality Matter?

NHL player nationality proportions are significantly different than that of other big leagues based in the USA. Among its player base, Canadians lead the way at 50.2%, followed by Americans at 28.1%, then Swedes at 7.2% and Russians at 5.7% before trickling down into negligible numbers. Compare this to the MLB and the NBA where Americans make up nearly 71% and 78% of the leagues, respectively. In the NFL, only about 3% are born on foreign soil, while NCAA athletic programs are nearly exclusively American.

To reiterate, the NHL is the only major athletic organization based in the USA with a player base that is not predominantly American. From this we may find a reason for why the NHL appears to be less vulnerable to player sports betting scandals. You see, Americans are far ahead of Canada – the NHL’s largest importer of players – when it comes to gambling related concerns. The U.S. leads the world in both gambling winnings and gambling losses (over $100 billion in total gambling losses per annum). Over 80% of American adults gamble on a yearly basis and about 2% exhibit problematic gambling behavior. Futhermore, sports betting has become so mainstream that a culture of gambling has formed in the hallways of our highschools. Is it a stretch to suggest that fewer American players could equal fewer prospective gamblers in the NHL?

But as we inferred in the introduction, is a perceived lower vulnerability to gambling scandal in the NHL sustainable? Probably not. You see, Canada is going down the same path as the USA when it comes to sports betting. The federal ban on sports betting was lifted in the USA in 2018, while the same occurred in Canada in 2021. At press, Statistics Canada reports that over 71% of Canadian adults (of above average income) gamble on a yearly basis and about 1% are considered to be at moderate-to-severe risk of gambling problems. Don’t be surprised if this recent NHL suspension becomes the first of significantly more to come.

Does Player Ethnicity Make a Difference?

ESPN reports nearly 84% of employees across the NHL and its teams are White, compared to under 4% (each) Black and Hispanic/Latino. More than 90% of players are white. You really don’t need us to pull the data on how this compares to the ethnic balance in the NFL NBA, MLB, and NCAAF/B.

Does the racial divide in the NHL have anything to do with the league’s perceptively lower vulnerability to gambling and sports betting scandal? When you consider that research consistently shows that there is a disproportionate prevalence of problem gambling in the African American community, it’s hard to look the other way.  Studies have found that African Americans have twice the rate of disordered gambling compared to White respondents. Moreover, research shows that our Black population exhibits proportionately higher rates of cooccurring (with gambling addiction) mood disorders. This is in addition to substance abuse and low-income status (which also cooccur with gambling disorder) that systemic racism has rendered upon the Black populous.

Ethnic diversity may or may not change significantly in the NHL in the next decade or so. That’s not for us to discuss. The takeaway, is instead focused on whether or not racial divide is a part of why the NHL has escaped being the center of sports betting scandal thus far. If so, it serves as yet another wakeup call to America.

If NHL policies continue to allow athletes to bet on sports in some shape or form, and the rise of gambling in America persists as it is, we can all expect to see the league being caught up in ongoing gambling scandals. Consequently, the puck has dropped on the call for greater access to problem gambling support.

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NHL Gambling Scandals Compared to Other Leagues and What it Means