It takes a certain kind of person to become a professional athlete, and the world’s top sports players all share certain traits that have helped them get to the top. Competitive, self-confident, often thrill-seeking and even a little aggressive, many of these sports stars seek out leisure activities to suit their personality. So, it’s no wonder that many of them are drawn to the high-octane atmosphere of the casino. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they have enormous salaries, so it’s that much easier for them to absorb a big loss.
Most sports enthusiasts will know about some of the more high-profile names who enjoy a flutter at the casino, and there are many retired athletes who have found a new outlet for their ruthless streak in high-stakes games. Michael Jordan is today almost as famous for his extravagant gambling escapades as he is for his basketball legacy, and Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather regularly brags on social media about his wins on everything from college sports bets to poker.
Canada has a thriving casino industry and a massive sports scene, so which of Canada’s sporting heroes share Jordan and Mayweather’s passion for the casino tables? We’ve delved into the lives of some famous sporting names, both home-grown talent and those who have played for Canadian teams, to find out.
The Poker Pros
Canada’s most beloved sport, hockey, has produced some serious contenders at poker. Gino Odjick, once known as ‘the Algonquin Assassin’, played as an enforcer for the Vancouver Canucks and the Montreal Canadiens, as well as for some NHL teams in the USA. After his retirement, he took his aggressive playing style to Vancouver’s River Rock Casino, where he has become a familiar face at the poker tables. Odjick’s luck has extended to his personal life as well, and he has managed to recover from a disease that was thought to be terminal, after turning to an experimental treatment.
Montreal native Vincent Damphousse spent most of his NHL career playing for his hometown team, winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. Since retiring, he has been a regular on the poker circuit, joining the Playground Poker Club on the Kahnawake reserve just outside Montreal. Damphousse also enjoys organizing poker tournaments to raise money for charity.
Not all poker-playing hockey stars are retired, however. Roberto Luongo, another Montrealer and successful goaltender, currently plays all the way down in Florida. Luongo’s relish for poker is well known, and he has even played with some success in the World Series of Poker. Rumours abound that he also participates in online poker tournaments when he has the time. Luongo has shown that he can hold his own against the best, and he hasn’t ruled out trying his hand at a professional poker career when he finally hangs up his skates.
Who is the greatest Canadian hockey player that the NHL has ever seen? Most fans would agree that there is only one answer, and indeed the league itself has dubbed him ‘the greatest hockey player of all time’. We’re talking, of course, about Wayne Gretzky. He may have retired almost twenty years ago, but he still holds more than sixty unbeaten NHL records. He’s also believed to have a net worth of around $200 million, so it’s no surprise to hear that he is well known to be a casino high roller.
In the years following his retirement, he was rumoured to have a $1 million casino credit line at a Las Vegas establishment, and was said to think little of losing a million here or there on the tables. Gretzky came under fire for his excessive spending, and at the same time his wife was in the spotlight for her alleged part in an illegal sports betting ring. The Great One seemed to shrug it all off, however, and his wife was never charged with a crime.
One famous story about Gretzky paints him in a rather more sympathetic light. Rich Strafella of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas recounted a tale where Gretzky was at a table with Michael Jordan. When Jordan tipped a waitress with a five-dollar chip, Gretzky took the chip back, and replaced it with a hundred-dollar chip from Jordan’s stack. Turning to the basketball star, Gretzky told him “That’s how we tip in Las Vegas, Michael.”
The Good Guys
Canadians have a reputation for being the world’s nicest people. This may be a bit at odds with the often violent game that is so close to Canadian hearts, but there are plenty of hockey players who are known for their kindness and generosity off the rink. Daniel and Henrik Sedin may have been born in Sweden, but after eighteen seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, it looks like some of that legendary Canadian niceness rubbed off on them. The philanthropic twins were very involved in local charitable work, especially for the British Columbia Children’s Hospital and the Canucks For Kids Fund. One event that the Sedins were always actively involved in was the annual Dice and Ice charity casino night to raise money for the fund.
Hockey players don’t have the monopoly on either altruism or casino nights. Two prominent Canadian baseball players also host charity casino nights for good causes. Ryan Dempster started the Dempster Family Foundation in 2010 after his daughter Riley was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition. Although the charity closed its doors six years later, it was Dempster’s penchant for a spot of gambling that gave him the idea to hold an annual casino night fundraiser. Similarly, Justin Morneau offered fans a chance to play a hand or two of poker against him and some of his team mates at his yearly casino nights to raise money for arthritis research. Morneau’s interest in the condition started after his niece Madelyn was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, a debilitating condition affecting 300,000 children in the USA.
From the heroes to the villains now, and it stands to reason that mixing wealthy, headstrong sporting personalities with casino tables will result in some controversies. Several stars have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the years, and it seems that for some, the casino brings out their sinful side.
The Toronto Raptors are the only NBA team based in Canada, and the side have seen more than one of their players get in casino-related hot water. In 2016, Cory Joseph and his American team mate DeMarre Carroll were spotted by a reporter at a Cleveland casino in the small hours of the morning before a big game. The Raptors went on to lose badly, and the press reported that the players had been spotted living it up the night before. Both Joseph and Carroll dismissed the story, saying that basketball players have a different sleep schedule than a nine to five worker. They were backed up by team mates and their coach, but that didn’t appease some of the fans who felt that the players weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously.
Another Raptors alumnus to have a casino mishap was American-born Charles Oakley. In July 2018 he was arrested in Las Vegas after security camera footage allegedly caught him trying to change a wager after the outcome was known. Vegas casinos take any attempts at cheating very seriously, and it looked like Oakley could be facing jail time. Luckily, he eventually got off with a small fine and a warning that he wouldn’t be welcome back at that particular establishment.
A (dis)honourable mention must go to Jaromir Jagr, formerly of the Calgary Flames hockey team. Although he is Czech, it was his life-long dream to play in a Canadian team. Jagr played just one season with the Flames, and by that time his career had been scandal free for some time. But between 1998 and 2002, Jagr got into serious debt with two online gambling sites. When he failed to keep up with his repayments, the owner of one of the sites leaked the story to the press, leaving Jagr humiliated. He seems to have learned his lesson, apologising for the transgression in 2003 and insisting that he doesn’t have a gambling problem.
The NHL and Sports Betting
As we’ve seen, Canadian sports players enjoy their casinos and gambling. Until now, however, they have not been permitted to extend that love to betting on sports, at least not when they are in their home country. The USA opened up to gambling on sports in 2017, and a recent NHL deal may be an early sign that Canada will be following their example. The league signed an agreement to provide data to MGM Resorts International, to be used for sports betting in the USA.
The move has been widely seen as a step towards allowing Canadian citizens to bet on single sports event outcomes, rather than the current system of parlay betting, which only permits wagers on two or more outcomes at one time. Of course, active players will still be prohibited from betting on games in their own league, but if the speculation proves to be true, it’s sure to be welcomed by sports players and fans all over Canada.