The obfuscation of player injuries during the NHL playoffs has hardened for years into a quaint and often comical tradition, as much a part of hockey’s spring as playoff beards and post-series handshake lines. Coaches describe all maladies in hemispheric terms, and decisions on playing status arrive at “game time” with remarkable frequency.
In recent years, the NHL’s opaque outlook toward injuries has been cast in a different light — or, perhaps, kept in a different shade of the dark. With sports leagues’ full-throated efforts to profit from legalized sports betting, the NHL’s concealing approach to injury disclosure has made it an outlier. While other leagues maintain strict rules and punish noncompliant teams, NHL coaches still discuss injuries in only the vaguest terms and the league has no mechanism that compels teams to reveal injuries.
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The dearth of transparency means the fans whom the NHL has tacitly or explicitly encouraged to gamble on its games often operate without the most fundamental knowledge: Who’s playing? More disquieting, it allows for the possibility that some bettors or bookmakers could gain access to information the public does not have, skewing the market in the favor of insiders. In the darkest scenario, it could incentivize players or staffers to share injury status with bettors for personal gain.
“The NHL is on an island when it comes to injuries,” Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook Vice President Jay Kornegay said. “Being a bookmaker, transparency is the key. Either nobody knows or everybody knows. We get into sticky situations when only a select few know the true status of an injury.”
The NHL has ventured into new territory with betting. The league and individual franchises have formed partnerships with a passel of online sportsbooks. In Washington, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis heralded the opening of a sportsbook inside Capital One Arena, the first of its kind in the country. But the league has no plans to adjust how it permits teams to withhold injuries from the public, and so they have continued with a practice that prevents opposing coaches from game-planning with complete information and opposing players from targeting vulnerable body parts.
“To this point, our long-standing policy has not proven problematic,” NHL spokesman John Dellapina said in an email. “There is no current consideration being given to amending the policy.”
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The practice has long vexed bookmakers, who rely on information shared publicly and sent directly to them by other leagues. The NFL’s comprehensive injury-disclosure policy was adopted with the aim of creating level playing field for bettors, although some NFL coaches remain deliberately vague.
In a rare concession, the Capitals ruled forward Tom Wilson out for Game 3 of their series against the Florida Panthers the morning of the game. In other sports, that would be expected. During the first round of its playoffs, the NBA fined the Phoenix Suns $25,000 because they “failed to disclose guard Devin Booker’s participation status in an accurate and timely manner prior.” Last weekend, the NBA fined the Philadelphia Sixers $50,000 because they did not change Joel Embiid’s designation from “out” soon enough before he played Game 3 against the Miami Heat.
Even in an age of widespread gambling, from which the NHL has reaped financial benefits, the NHL has stuck with its approach. In a rapidly evolving climate, though, some sportsbook operators expect that to change.
“We’d like them to be a little more transparent, and hopefully we’ll get there,” said DraftKings Director of Race and Sportsbook Operations Johnny Avello, a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker. “If you go back a few years, the NHL wanted nothing to do with us sportsbook operators. Now we’ve certainly bridged that gap a bit. I look for things to improve as far as that’s concerned. It would be nice if the league would send us those things.”
The NHL supplies bookmakers injury data during games, Avello said, so bookmakers can make lines for in-game wagers. But even that reveals only when a player leaves the ice and whether he returns for a shift, not the extent or type of injury or how long it may sideline him.
Bookmakers have learned over the years that even if teams successfully hide injuries from the public and their opponents, somebody can still find out. If Kornegay takes a bet from a gambler with a savvy reputation on a game involving a player with an unknown status, Kornegay might presume that the gambler found out about the player’s health and will adjust the line accordingly.
“If a well-respected player was to bet into a line — doesn’t matter what sport — and there is a player that might be questionable, if he bets one side or the other, that sends up a red flag to us that he’s probably betting based off the latest injury news,” Kornegay said. “How they get that, I don’t know. But it’s a game we play every day with some of the more educated players.”
Some bettors, Kornegay said, bet solely based on perceived edges in information. Sometimes, Kornegay’s staff will check Twitter after certain bettors wager to see if they missed a news update about an injury. When it comes to hockey, those updates are rarely there.
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“It’s just what we have to deal with being a bookmaker,” Kornegay said. “The NHL is a little more frustrating because you just can’t find out the information. We just have to really base it off the type of play that we see coming in on that particular game. We might not know until the scratches are announced that a particular player is out. But if we already took the so-called sharp action against that guy playing, we have a pretty good idea that star player is not going to play or might be very limited.”
The bookmakers are not the only parties who suffer. A sportsbook operates as a market. If most bettors are in the dark about an injury but a select few know about it, the public faces a disadvantage.
“It would be nice if everybody out there knew who’s playing so that they could make a rational decision on who they’re going to bet,” Avello said.
Leonsis has for years evangelized the legalization sports wagering, repeatedly touting it as a data-driven form of entertainment that allows fans a chance to profit from their knowledge. “Gambling is no different than betting on stocks on Wall Street, right?” Leonsis once said. “The people who do best are the most informed.”
But the NHL’s policy and the league’s culture encourages teams to withhold precisely the information most essential to those fans. Leonsis declined to comment for this story through a Monumental Sports spokeswoman.
The only upside to the NHL’s policy, Kornegay said, is that only the absence of a major star would impact the line on a single hockey game. The absence of a player like Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon or Edmonton’s Connor McDavid could move a line 30 cents per dollar bet, Kornegay said, but even that pales to the impact when a star quarterback is out in the NFL. A star goalie may affect the goal line — a bet on the number of total goals scored — by half a goal.
For days, bookmakers have had to guess at how Washington would be impacted by Wilson’s injury. After he left the ice in the first period of Game 1 against the Florida Panthers, the Capitals revealed only that he had been “evaluated” with a “lower-body injury” and would be a “game-time decision.” He has remained day-to-day in the six days since.
“We still don’t know a whole lot,” Avello said. “I’m not going to hold a gun to their head and say they should be giving it to us. I would hope that over time this relationship strengthens and we’re able to get the information that we need.”
About a decade ago, Avello said, he invited leaders from all major sports league, including the NHL, to Las Vegas to see how a sportsbook functioned. He believed they left with an understanding that transparency helps the integrity of both gambling and the games themselves. He believes in a few years, the NHL will start to disclose injuries. But for now, it is still a league where traditions fade slowly.