June 15, 2010

Organized Crime and Sports

In my failing attempts to deal with hockey withdrawal, I tried watching a little bit of this thing called the World Cup on the weekend. Although I played the game (not very well, mind you) for years as a kid, my only interest in soccer nowadays is watching the kids play at the local pitch.

I watched England vs USA on Saturday. After watching England's goalkeeper unthinkably flub that shot, I could not help but think of Declan Hill.

Declan Hill is the Canadian author I told you about last year who wrote the book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime.

The book looks at how organized crime, particularly Asian gangs, has corrupted the world of soccer at it's highest levels, including European Champions League, Olympic and World Cup matches and tournaments.

Author Declan Hill explains the structure and mechanics of illegal gambling syndicates, what soccer players and referees do or not do to affect the outcome of their games, why relatively rich and high-status athletes would take money to fix games, and how they get referees on their side.
Absolutely amazing stuff. Even more mind-blowing: FIFA, soccer's governing body, does nothing about it, and may even be somehow in cahoots with the criminals. A Russian godfather claims to have been seen sitting in the FIFA president's luxury box during World Cup games.

After reading this book your faith in the purity soccer at every level is completely shaken. You might as well extend that to all of sports. The book also touches on basketball, tennis, cricket, even rowing.
And we all remember disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy's ties to gambling, even though the NBA has somehow kept that hushed. To me that is a far bigger deal than baseball's Pete Rose.

Could organized crime be trying to fix hockey matches too?

Do not kid yourself. If organized crime is match-fixing rowing competitions, they are likely interested in a slice of hockey's big money pie. There is corruption in all facets of life, so why would professional hockey be immune?

There has even been some suspicion about mobster involvement. If you are in Canada you may remember a investigative journalism piece about 9 years ago for CBC's The Fifth Estate that looked at how Russian players associating with known members of the Russian mafia, perhaps forced to do so because of mafia extortion attempts. That Fifth Estate documentary was done by, you guessed it, Declan Hill.

I could not find that documentary on YouTube, but I found this Declan Hill written article about the Russian mafia's interest in hockey.

Hill estimates as high as 80% of Russian players have had to deal with the mafia, including Oleg Tverdovsky who had his parents kidnapped and Alexei Zhitnik who was beaten severely. The Mafia also "introduces" themselves to promising junior players as young as 15 or 16, looking to befriend someone they can soon extort.

Their interest in hockey is not restricted to extorting rich NHL players, insists Hill. Extortion is for low level criminals. Game fixing is where the big boys play for big, big money. But beyond that obvious statement Hill offers nothing to suggest any hint of players being bribed to throw games.

Instead, he goes on to say the mafia tend to use sports stars to legitimize themselves in the public's eye. If they are seen chumming around with famous sports stars, that is great for business and reputation, particularly mainstream business.

The Russians, led by Pavel Bure's friend Anzor Kikalishvili, are the only organized criminals publicly associated with hockey, although with the money involved you would have to wonder about North American mobsters, too.

Historically though, mobsters and gambling have never been far from the NHL, especially at the owner level.

Most notable were the Norris family. James Norris Sr, long-time owner of the Detroit Red Wings, and his son Jim Norris, who owned the Chicago Blackhawks, had ties to some of the sleaziest swindlers. In the late 1950s the United States senate even investigated the Norris family's relationships with mafia king pins, most notably Frankie Carbo.

Then there was Big Bill Dwyer, one of biggest bootleggers and mobsters during the prohibition era. He used his illegal monies to buy the New York Americans way back in the 1920s.

Now let's remember these owners are guilty of suspicious association more than anything. We have absolutely no reason to believe these owner's conspired to fix games. They just had ties to the mob.

Even without the mob involved, when there is gambling involved there is a possibility of game fixing. And the NHL has had other owners/administrators who were noted gamblers.

Always quick to defend Jim Norris in particular was none other than Toronto Maple Leafs boss Conn Smythe, one of the most legendary figures in hockey history. He was never afraid to gamble his own money, especially at the race track. He built his empire, the Leafs and Maple Leafs Gardens on winnings.

His understudy, Frank Selke, also shared his hobbies. Selke of course went on to create the Montreal dynasty of the 1950s.

Speaking of the storied Montreal Canadiens, they were largely funded by gambling money from 1921 to 1936. Owners Leo Dandurand, Joe Cattarinch and Louis Letourneau operated a casino in Cleveland, Ohio and were also noted racetrack visitors.

Gambling has also been associated with a few players. Most notable are four players

1. Babe Pratt, Toronto's all star defenseman, gambled on NHL games back in the 1940s. He had his suspension eliminated after just 16 days as there was no proof he placed bets on games involving the Leafs.

2 and 3. Don Gallinger of Boston and Billy Taylor of New York teamed up to gamble on the outcomes of NHL games, including games they were participating in. Both were suspended for life, though they would be pardoned by the NHL some 20 years later.

4. Back in 2006 retired player/Phoenix assistant coach Rick Tocchet he played some role in a crooked New Jersey cop's small time betting scheme. Though taking bets on hockey never occured, Tocchet pled guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling charges.

And if you believe Dick Beddoes' book Greatest Hockey Stories, Hall of Famers Sweeney Schriner and Teeder Kennedy were also noted gamblers. And some upset fans accused the great Howie Morenz of taking a bribe after Morenz failed to score in a playoff series against the Montreal Maroons in 1928. The disbelieving fans, some of whom undoubtedly lost money on their own bets, could not believe Morenz did not play better.

Again, we have no reason to believe there has ever been any game fixing in hockey. But we also know mobsters have their own definition of power play.

1 comment:

Julia said...

Wow... I thought mafia and higher level sports associated more in money laundering schemes and tending international bonds for human trafficking and drugs, than gambing - which, if you like, is more like investments. The way I see it (and it's really an outsider's look), mafiosi are often associated to management - agents, club scouts - pushing for big contracts for average or mediocre players.

I just think that fixing games takes too much work... but of course I might be mistaken.