Written by: Steve McAllister
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The 41-game suspension last week to Shane Pinto by the National Hockey League for “activities relating to sports wagering” has prompted questions about what exactly those activities were from the Ottawa Senators forward.

For Paul Burns, the league’s longest suspension since 2015 – when Raffi Torres also received a suspension for half of the regular season for a vicious hit again Jakob Silfverberg of the Anaheim Ducks – answers one very important question.

“The system works,” Burns, the president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, a national advocacy group for a regulated, responsible and sustainable sports betting and gaming industry, said succinctly.

Pinto is the first NHL player to be suspended for gambling-related activity in the new era of legal sports betting in North America. In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court – at the request of the state of New Jersey – overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). In August 2021, the federal government in Canada gave final approval to Bill C-218, the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act which amended the Criminal Code and allowed provincial governments to conduct and manage single-event sports betting.

The two pieces of legislation opened the door for legal sports wagering today in 35 U.S. states, both online and retail (in-person), and in Ontario, one of the most competitive regulated gambling jurisdictions in the world with 47 companies offering sports wagering and/or online casino and poker.  The provincial lottery and gaming corporations across Canada, including the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, operate both retail and online sportsbooks.

Also, the wide-open new world of wagering also gave the green light to professional sports leagues, which up until the striking down of PASPA opposed sports betting, to strike partnership deals with sportsbooks and allow their teams to do the same.  Media companies also seized on the opportunity presented by a new source of revenue, including TSN which, when Ontario’s regulated market opened in April 2022, introduced FanDuel as the network’s official sportsbook partner.

The increased awareness around sports betting, spurred by robust marketing and advertising budgets, the use of current and former athletes as brand ambassadors – including Wayne Gretzky, Chris Pronger, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Leon Draisaitl – and the integration of sports betting into broadcasts of games, has come under criticism and concerns that people vulnerable to addiction and young people will be attracted to gambling.

Pinto’s suspension, points out Burns and PointsBet Canada’s Nic Sulsky, is the result of a partnership in which a premium is placed on integrity, both on the ice and in placing a wager.

“This had nothing to do with the amount of advertising on TV, and nothing to do with the amount of gambling branding you see during sporting events,” said Sulsky, the chief commercial officer for Australia-based PointsBet’s Canadian business. “Betting existed before this (suspension) and will continue to exist.

“What this shines a light is how seriously sports leagues and (betting) operators take integrity issues not only with the average gaming consumer but the sanctity of pro sports.”

While the NHL, in a statement last week, said that Pinto didn’t bet on NHL games, it didn’t provide any specifics around the activity that resulted in a suspension that came from a negotiation between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that there was reason to believe that another person may have had access to Pinto’s account which led to the “improper gambling activity”.

“People will say this happened because of regulated sports betting,” said the CGA’s Burns. “We know this happened because of regulated betting. We didn’t know before because no one was watching.

“This is an unfortunate incident, but it demonstrates that the regulatory regimes and the rules put in place are working.”

Identifying that activity would come from different sources of monitoring betting and the use of accounts. The NHL has partnerships with Sportradar and U.S. Integrity to provide monitoring assistance, while the sportsbooks themselves have their own mandatory monitoring protocol. PointsBet’s Sulsky explained that customers, when registering for a sportsbook account, are asked to state their occupation.

“We have access to names of people involved in pro sports, and that information is shared,” he said. “The leagues, the operators and the integrity agencies are all in this together. (They) monitor around suspicious betting activity. If they see a lot of action on a random sport event, that will raise a flag and there will need to be an investigation.”

The NHL and the players association have individual and joint assistance programs that include education on gambling. Representatives from both organizations indicated Friday that there will be enhancements moving forward, and the NHLPA is holding Zoom calls this week for players seeking more information on what they can and can’t do when it comes to betting.

The National Football League, which has suspended 10 players for various violations of its gambling policy, announced in September that it will punish players more harshly for betting on its own teams while making it less punitive for players who place bets on other NFL games or betting on non-NFL sports while at a team facility or on team-related travel.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players, only betting on NHL games is prohibited.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say to the players that if the public, that if every person gets a chance to use these platforms to gamble, the players should be banned from it,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh told Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic. “My bigger concern is to make sure hockey players understand the importance of betting responsibility, being careful, on the gambling platforms as far as becoming addicted to it and getting yourself in trouble that way or whatever it might be.”

This story is presented in partnership with Gaming News Canada.

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