Former NHL Player Aaron Ward Details the Depths of His Gambling Addiction

Ward had been betting for a while, and as his hockey career progressed, so did his unit sizes. He wagered $5 to $20 at a time while in college, then $50 or $100 when he hit the minors.

Grant Leonard - News Editor at
Grant Leonard • News Editor
May 20, 2024 • 19:09 ET • 4 min read
Aaron Ward Carolina Hurricanes NHL
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

Ward joins a growing list of professional athletes who’ve recently admitted to or been otherwise caught up in gambling problems affecting their careers. 

The growth of the legal sports betting industry is exciting for many, but for a vulnerable few, it’s becoming more and more of a challenge. 

Aaron Ward’s journey through gambling addiction is a cautionary tale of how quickly one’s life can unravel when gripped by such a powerful compulsion. Ward won three Stanley Cups during his 13-year NHL career and landed a prime media gig with TSN when his playing days were over. 

Bad Beat

Ward had been betting for a while, and as his hockey career progressed, so did his unit sizes. He wagered $5 to $20 at a time while in college, then $50 or $100 when he hit the minors. Once he got on an NHL salary, he started dropping $1000 a game and then it snowballed from there. He claims to have almost exclusively bet on the NFL through offshore bookies, but never on his own sport of hockey or in casinos. When Pete Carroll notoriously decided not to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX, Ward went from losing $50,000 he didn’t have to winning the $50,000 he needed to pay a debt.  

It all came crashing down on October 9, 2015, when his then-wife called 911 and he was arrested and charged with assault on a female and interfering with emergency communications. According to Yahoo Sports, Ward’s ex-wife found an old email address that he’d been using for gambling and anything else he wanted to hide. Although the charges were eventually dropped and expunged from his record, the damage had been done to Ward’s life as he got divorced and lost his TSN job. 

“The best thing that ever happened to me was running face-first into that wall,” Ward said of the whole ordeal, signaling how it led to him getting the help he long needed. 

Ad Arbitrage

Nine years following his rock bottom, Ward is now trying to help others who find themselves at similar dead ends. He’s worked with a Duke psychologist that the NHL Players Association helped him find, and ESPN Broadcaster and former NHLer Ray Ferraro has also become a sounding board for him. 

Ward spent five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and won the 2006 Stanley Cup with the team. He attended Game 6 of the Hurricanes’ second-round series with the New York Rangers as a credentialed member of the press for hockey podcast The Fourth Period. 
Ward calls the amount of gambling advertisements on the ice and airwaves “nauseating” and “painful.” There were ads for FanDuel, ESPN Bet, and Betway within his view from the press box at PNC Arena, and he sees former teammate Kevin Weekes as an advertising spokesman for DraftKings. The ads are especially prolific in his home market since online sports betting in North Carolina just launched in March. 

“It does affect me nowadays, the fact that I have to see FanDuel absolutely nonstop, and there are people who are struggling, and their idols and the people who have value on their teams are out there promoting all of this,” Ward said of the widespread impact gambling ads are having on him and other vulnerable gamblers. 

Gambling And Athletes

One of the potential upsides to the legal, regulated sports betting industry is that there are tons of measures in place to help spot problem gambling and address it accordingly. 

East Carolina criminal justice professor Michelle Malkin studies gambling behavior, and her research indicates that athletes might be particularly vulnerable to problem gambling.

“We do know through multiple research projects that athletes are at some of the highest risk for disordered gambling and gambling that takes higher risks,” Malkin said, suggesting that athletes, in general, are less risk-averse. “They know to push themselves against the odds. When it comes to gambling, that’s the same part of the brain that gets them to continue when their body tells them to stop or climb a hill that seems impossible.”

The number of incidents of athletes betting on sports is growing, but some industry leaders see the fact that these incidents are coming to light at all as proof the regulations and systems to govern wagering activity are actually working. 

Earlier this month, Leonardo Villalobos, counsel for sports betting and compliance at Major League Baseball spoke on a panel at SBC Summit North America called ‘Integrity’s role in sports and betting,’ stating:

“I think people here, people in the industry, might appreciate that stories like this are a sign that the regulated market is working.”

Ward’s negative sentiment about the gambling ad arbitrage suggests a disconnect between the perception within the industry and the rest of the world, and Villalobos commented on that divide too:

“I think maybe fans might not have the same appreciation and might look at stories that happen like this and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, legal sports betting is going off the rails.’”

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