“They take away from the entire game”: Karl Subban on his campaign to ban sports betting ads

The three-time NHL dad on the ubiquity of gambling promos, why they’re more than just annoying and which of his three sons was the biggest troublemaker

By Alex Cyr| Photography by Joshua Best
“They take away from the entire game”: Karl Subban on his campaign to ban sports betting ads

As hockey fans watched the Maple Leafs get eliminated from yet another playoffs this month, it was difficult to ignore one player doing more than just scoring goals. Auston Matthews, along with Wayne Gretzky, Connor McDavid and many others, could be spotted on commercials, billboards and even arena jumbotrons promoting sports gambling. Ever since single-game sports betting became legal in Canada in 2021, advertisements for various gambling platforms have proliferated. They have become so unavoidable that nearly half of Canadians want to see fewer of them. That includes Karl Subban, the father of three NHL players: Malcolm, Jordan and Canadiens player turned ESPN talking head P. K. The patriarch has joined the Ban Ads for Gambling campaign to try to restrict the ads, which he says set a poor example for young fans. We asked Papa Subs about his stand against gambling, what safeguards he’d like to see in place and what advice he has for parents raising the next generation of top players.

Karl, I have to ask: What’s the secret to raising three NHL stars? I don’t know if there is one. I’ve spent my life working with young people—as a parent, a school administrator and a hockey coach. Success comes down to letting them pursue what they love. Our family happens to be a hockey family, and my kids grew up huddling around our tiny living room television watching the NHL. It was constantly playing live games or those old Don Cherry highlight tapes. Malcolm would imitate the goalies, with Jordan stickhandling in the hallway. P. K. just sat on the floor quietly, putting tape around the blade of his stick. If I left them alone, they would do that for hours. I don’t think parents today have that luxury.

How do you mean? Everywhere you turn, you’re invited to gamble on the games. The volume of these sports-betting ads is crazy—they’re plastered on billboards, buses and even on the boards at arenas. You can’t get through a single set of commercials without a superstar hockey player inviting you to download a series of apps. I stand in front of the TV for minutes at a time to shield my grandchildren from betting promos. It takes away from the entire event of watching a game; they’re that distracting. And beyond that, they lead fans to make dangerous decisions with their money.

Gambling has been around for a while. Is it really that dangerous? A gambling addiction can be as dangerous as alcohol or smoking—the financial consequences can be huge. And for parents, it’s hard to catch. Kids can be betting in their room when you think they’re doing homework. I always had a good read on my children when they were growing up. But, if they were teens right now, I’d have no way of knowing if they were gambling on their phones. The apps look just like games.

So P. K., Malcolm and Jordan never tried to pull any fast ones on you as kids? I was the principal at their school—and I did have to suspend Jordan once! But we generally had things under control.

How about you? Have you ever indulged in gambling? If buying a lottery ticket is gambling, then yes. Otherwise, no.

With the campaign to ban ads, why focus on young people? The part of the brain that governs decision making isn’t fully developed until 25—we should not be shoving gambling in the faces of 19-year-olds. Even younger kids could easily be playing on a parent’s phone. On top of risking addiction, these apps and platforms are too attractive and easy to use to properly teach impulse control and moderation. It’s especially dangerous when kids have their role models literally telling them to try it out.

Sports betting advertisements have become a ubiquitous part of watching the game, with hockey superstars like Auston Matthews, Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid jumping on board as promoters. Karl Subban, the father Malcolm, Jordan, and Canadiens player turned ESPN talking head, PK, is working with the Ban Ads for Gambling campaign to try and restrict sports betting promos that he feels set a poor example for young fans

Right, because some of the greatest names in hockey history are promoting these websites and apps. It’s really disappointing. My sons grew up with their own idols—at times, they would have done anything to be like them. P. K. was a Montreal fan, and he especially looked up to NHL legend Jean Béliveau. When P. K. was a kid, Jean did a pre-game talk at one of his minor hockey games at York University. Those kids did not have that strong of a team and honestly had no business beating their opponents. But, after hearing Jean, they went on the ice and blasted them. These people have so much influence. Telling kids that they can love their superstar athletes but not emulate them—that’s a tough message to get across. 

P. K. has had a prolific career in the NHL and now as an ESPN analyst. He would be a perfect target for gambling companies. Have you forbidden him from signing a deal? What he does is up to him. If he jumps on board and signs a deal—and I’m not saying that he would—I’d still love him, but I wouldn’t love seeing him in those ads, and he would know about it. I think that’s something to remember with respect to the players in these ads. You can dislike what someone does, but it doesn’t have to influence your entire opinion of them.

What is your campaign asking for in terms of changes? We want to restrict and regulate gambling advertising through federal, provincial and territorial legislation. We also want to keep celebrities and athletes out of gambling ads. They say the squeaky wheel gets the most grease, and I became a member because I wanted to help raise awareness. There’s also a secondary problem, which is that they’re just annoying. I think that could factor into a decision to remove them.

One could argue that there are other things on TV that a kid should not see: ads for beer and liquor, for example. That’s true, but there are tons of restrictions around advertising tobacco. We need to treat gambling the same way. In this case, I specifically take issue with the volume. Even limiting the amount would be a step in the right direction.

You’ve had a lot of success as a hockey dad. Any advice for parents navigating that world today? There was a time when I looked at P. K., Malcolm and Jordan, and I saw hockey players. One of the early lessons I learned from my wife, Maria, is that I was a better dad when I saw my kids as people first, students second and hockey players third. If your kids are high-performance athletes, make sure you never stop seeing them as people with unique beliefs, dreams and experiences. Ultimately, this is why I’m fighting these gambling ads: I want to help kids realize their potential as people. And if I’d bet on anything, it’s that gambling will get in the way of that.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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