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opinion

After the first period of Saturday’s Edmonton-Vegas game, there was one of those Bet365 ads that have become the wallpaper of hockey broadcasts in this country. You know them so well that you don’t even see them any more.

This one had a twist I hadn’t noticed before. Pitchman Aaron Paul broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to me.

“The latest odds are on your screen now,” Paul said.

Then the TV flashed “Vegas to win +1550.”

Those are long odds. You bet $10 and you can win $155.

Given the circumstances at that moment – Oilers leading 4-0, Vegas on a union-mandated three-hour break – that’s a trap.

Your mind knows that Vegas is not winning this game, because your mind saw the first period. But your heart cries out for all the famous comebacks of hockey games past.

What’s four goals? It’s nothing. And what’s $155? That’s nothing, too. How about $1,500? Or $15,000?

It’s only going to cost you a measly grand to take that shot. Imagine how you’ll feel if it happens and you weren’t brave? You’ll feel like a chump.

It’s not smart. You know that. You know it’s actively stupid. But it’s tempting. If you’re sitting at a bar with buddies, four or five drinks deep, even moreso. What a night we’re all having! I’ll be rich soon, so the shots are on me.

This is why they built casinos in the desert, and why they don’t need to bother with the cost of real estate any more.

You go directly from that advertising mind warp to Ron MacLean and the panel.

Not so long ago, the panel was where you went to figure out what you had just seen. Experts giving the game context, purely for entertainment purposes.

But when you surround a panel with gambling ads, it becomes insidious. You’re in there searching for hints that betting next month’s rent payment is actually a good idea. C’mon, Kevin Bieksa, just give me some hope. Tell me something encouraging about offensive-zone entries.

The tone of the panel is still light and frothy. Lots of laughs. Every once in the while, someone will mention “the kids” or “boys and girls.” In those moments, it occurs to you that these nice people still think Hockey Night in Canada is a family concern.

It isn’t.

HNIC has become a boiler room. It might as well be phoning you up to ask if you want to invest in penny stocks that have huuuuge upside potential with very little downside risk. This isn’t a sports show any more. It’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

This might not be true if the gambling ads were even a little less rapacious, a little less ubiquitous, a little less full of crap. It might not seem quite so venal if the people starring in the ads were not some of the same people playing in the games you watch.

The greatest hockey player in the world shills for BetMGM. Somehow, people don’t think this is weird.

People would have a conniption if Connor McDavid gave $100 to a political party they don’t like. But inject the creep of doubt into the country’s cultural patrimony because I guess he doesn’t have a Ferrari in every colour already? No problem, man. You go get yours.

Imagine the greatest doctor in the world running ads on Grey’s Anatomy telling you that, hey, I know meth gets a bad rap, but it can be fun in moderation. Try my new Dr. Feelgood organic, anti-ageing meth.

Is that too extreme a comparison? Maybe. But how many lives has gambling improved? And how many has it destroyed? That’s a ratio no one wants to discuss.

The human question is most important, but there’s also the corrosive effect on the foundations of the game.

We are meant to think that it is inconceivable – wild and paranoid – that the people financing the broadcast, the people starring in it and the people hyping it might collude in predetermining the outcome of the thing being broadcast.

This is not to say they are. I’m as sure as I can be they are not.

But for a person of average intelligence who isn’t blinded by the romance of the good ol’ hockey game, that is a pretty reasonable thing to think given what they’re seeing.

The only thing separating that person from that opinion is that everyone’s making so much money already. Why would they bother fixing anything?

But if that’s the case, why do they need gambling’s dirty money at all? Why, on some nights, does it seem as though these are the only ads running? Why are they pushing you to bet on highly unlikely outcomes in the middle of the game?

You know that feeling when you’re on vacation and someone holding a brochure tries to make eye contact with you on the sidewalk. That urge to flee, in conflict with our innate Canadian terror of seeming rude. That’s what watching Hockey Night in Canada feels like now.

I don’t want to bet. I don’t want to be told to bet all night long. I don’t want to see or hear the odds. I don’t want to know why this prop is hot right now. I don’t want gambling’s clammy hand reaching out from my screen, trying to work its way up my shirt.

I just want to watch hockey.

If paying my cable fee and agreeing to sit through a few ads for detergent isn’t enough for the people in charge, then maybe we need to have a conversation about priorities. Exactly what wouldn’t you advertise if they offered you enough money?

Is there anything you consider beyond the pale? Never mind what’s legal. What are you saying about our values here? I’d like to see that discussion during the second-period intermission.

Back on Saturday night, the Oilers beat Vegas 5-1. The game was never in doubt. But I’d bet you that some people still think that +1550 on Vegas was a solid value proposition. And I bet you they’ll think the same thing the next time. And the time after that.

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