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NHL Alumni Association files $1.1 million suit against PointsBet Canada for breach of contract

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The NHL Alumni Association is suing the online gaming operator PointsBet Canada for $1.1 million for ending their sponsorship agreement in November 2023 after the Ontario government announced gambling companies could only use active or retired athletes to promote responsible gambling.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 18 in Ontario Superior Court in Toronto, the NHL Alumni Association alleges PointsBet is obligated to continue paying for its sponsorship through January 1, 2026, despite the government's marketing restrictions. The lawsuit has not been previously reported.

NHL Alumni Association president Glenn Healy declined to comment and a spokesman for PointsBet Canada did not respond to a request for comment. The association’s allegations have not been proven.

The alumni association and PointsBet initially signed a multi-year sponsorship agreement in January 2022 that gave the gambling company exclusive marketing rights within North America to retired NHL players.

"Saturday night hockey is an institution from coast-to-coast to coast," Nic Sulsky, who was then PointsBet Canada's chief commercial officer, wrote in a press release at the time. "Being able to partner with the likes of Paul Coffey, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mike Vernon and countless other NHL alumni that skated across our screens will allow us to deliver the authentically Canadian gaming experience that we want to bring sports fans."

One PointsBet ad created in April 2022 featured Coffey and actors from the Trailer Park Boys television show.

The alumni association wrote in its statement of claim that after it signed a contract extension with PointsBet in March 2023, the company was scheduled to pay an annual license fee of $160,000 that would increase to $170,000.

PointsBet, which is based in Australia, also agreed to contribute money to a fund to pay players for their participation in marketing, the lawsuit says, adding that PointsBet’s payment in the first year was $275,000 before dropping to $150,000 per year in subsequent years.

The alumni association alleges in its statement of claim that current and retired athletes are still permitted to be used in campaigns by gambling companies to promote responsible gaming.

Other gaming companies are finding ways to navigate the new rules.

In a 30-second ad released last month by PointsBet's rival BetMGM, Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid is shown advocating for responsible gaming, an exception to tightened marketing regulations in Ontario that went into effect on Feb. 28.

The ad shows McDavid asking a friend if he's aware of BetMGM's responsible gaming tools that will prevent him from "getting carried away" with gambling.

After the tighter marketing restrictions on gambling advertising were announced in August 2023, PointsBet wrote to Healy on Nov. 10, 2023, saying the company would terminate their agreement, according to the lawsuit.

In its letter, PointsBet described the new government rules as "a force majeure event," the lawsuit said. The alumni association alleges that its contract specified that it would be binding so long as the sponsor has a licence to operate in Canada or the U.S.

In a statement of defence filed on March 22, PointsBet wrote, "The essence of the agreement was that PointsBet was paying for retired players to drive PointsBet’s gaming business by actively participating in the advertising and marketing of PointsBet’s brands."

The new government rules, the company argues, precludes the use of current and retired athletes for any purpose other than advocating for responsible gambling practices. That made the marketing opportunities to use retired NHL players "radically different from what was bargained for by the parties."