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NHL suspension sparks call for gambling as mental health concern

The NFL has banned a handful of players for gambling violations in recent years
In the wake of NHL forward Shane Pinto being handed a 41 game suspension by the NHL, there needs to be an emphasis on treating gambling as a mental health disorder rather than a harmless past time, experts say. A poker player twirls his chips while playing his hand during a game at a poker championship in Calgary, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Some experts are calling on the NHL to treat gambling as a mental health disorder, rather than a harmless pastime, in the wake of the suspension of Ottawa Senators forward Shane Pinto.

The NHL suspended Pinto 41 games last week for violating its rules on sports wagering. The league said it has found no evidence the American forward made any bets on its games and considers the matter closed.

READ MORE: Ottawa’s Pinto suspended 41 games for ‘activities relating to sports wagering’

But the issue has raised concerns among researchers about the support provided for young athletes when it comes to gambling

David Hodgins, a professor with the University of Calgary’s psychology department and who also works with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, said given how prevalent betting advertising and companies are becoming in sports it was a matter of time before an athlete was ensnared.

“It makes sense that some of those individuals would be athletes who are competitive, around the front lines, they’re getting exposed and seeing other people be involved with gambling and have successes with their gambling,” he said. “And it seems inevitable that some people would be enticed to be involved.”

Hodgins said he would like the NHL to closely examine the issue and change how it has traditionally viewed gambling use disorders.

“(My hope is) there’s recognition that people can be addicted, that there’s sort of some impairment of control that can for some people be associated with their gambling involvement and that the appropriate professional support is provided to people,” he said.

Pinto is the latest professional athlete suspended since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports wagering in 2018.

The NFL has banned a handful of players for gambling violations in recent years.

The American Hockey League said in a statement that it is discussing with its players’ association whether a revision to its current policy prohibiting players of league employees from betting on AHL games is needed after the Pinto suspension and subsequent scrutiny.

The Canadian Hockey League, which encompasses the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, created a new sports betting policy before the start of the 2023-24 season.

The program includes an online education component and aims to make sure people understand the policy and ensure there are supports for those who need it.

“The CHL has specifically worked alongside the Canadian Mental Health Association to help educate our players on the signs and symptoms of problem gambling in order to help provide them with the support they require to not only support themselves, but their teammates, loved ones, and/or others as well,” the league said in a statement.

The league says all people associated with the CHL — including team owners, referees, trainers, security and medical staff, as well as players and coaches among others — are not permitted to directly or indirectly bet on the outcome or any aspect of a CHL game. The prohibition also extends to national and international tournaments involving junior age players.

Andrew Kim, a professor at the University of Calgary, whose research focuses on addiction and gambling, said there needs to be a recognition of the effect betting can have on younger people.

“Younger adults are at greater risk to gambling and gambling related harms,” he said. “If you have a teammate who’s showing up to practice intoxicated you kind of know, but you might not be able to tell if someone is having a gambling problem.”

Like Hodgins, Kim said the prevalence of betting and gambling in sports can be an influence.

“If the NHL is talking to their players about vulnerable age brackets and gambling, the NHLers may think ‘So you say it’s not OK for our players to do it but it’s OK for our fans of that same age to be exposed and bet on games?’” he said. You have these advertisements targeting the same age bracket … it’s so intertwined.”

Athletes can also be susceptible as they may believe they are experts in their respective sport and could safely predict the outcome of a bet, Kim said.

“As an athlete you may think you have more knowledge than a layperson and that may or may not be true,” he said. “With any gambling, you’re more likely to lose than win.”

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press