In the packed food court beneath the Hyatt Regency at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Jeanne-Mance, Christian, a 19-year-old part-time college student, tosses the North Face jacket on the chair across from him and sits down with his A&W cheeseburger, fries and Coke.
And begins poring over his sports betting slips.
Between bites, Christian fills in circles like he is taking a sports SAT, pausing to think before committing to his answers. On this day, the subject is Olympic hockey.
He likes Canada over Germany, the Czech Republic over Switzerland and the United States over Kazakhstan. He has chosen three favorites, so even if he nails all of them — which he must to win — the payoff on his $10 bet would cover only a few Happy Meals. On another sheet, he makes a stab at a bigger pay day: He picks the Canadians and Americans, then takes a flyer by predicting a tie between Russia and Sweden.
When finished, he takes the slips to the lottery kiosk just 30 yards away, smack in the middle of the mall. You see, sports betting is legal in Canada — as long as the government is your bookie. A lottery employee runs the sheets through a scanner, takes his money and delivers the betting receipts.
"I know the NHL," says Christian, who asked that his last name not be used. "That's my strongest sport. I read everything I can (on it), and I do pretty well. But the Olympics? Who knows? Everyone says Canada will win the gold medal, but with all of the pressure and the controversy, they might not. I don't know a lot about the (Olympic) teams, but this will give me something to bet on until the NHL returns."
In Canada, the NHL gambling scandal is playing like the O.J. trial: Publicly, people insist they are sick of the coverage, but secretly they can't get enough. And as the controversy tailed national hero Wayne Gretzky and his wife Janet Jones to Turin, Italy — site of the Winter Olympics — questions are being raised here:
Is the government hypocritical by wagging a finger at illegal bookmakers while making huge profits on its own sports betting games? And, because of legalized wagering, do young Canadian hockey players grow up to be NHL stars who believe sports betting is acceptable, normal and harmless?
Jeffrey Derevensky, who operates the International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill University, just a few blocks from that lottery kiosk at the Hyatt Regency, thinks the answer to both questions is yes.
"By running the games, the government lends legitimacy to sports gambling," he says. "People think, 'It can't be bad, because the government allows it.' And most bettors don't differentiate between that and betting with a bookmaker. They think, 'If this kind of betting is okay, then the other kind must be okay, too. I'm not hurting anyone.'
"Am I surprised by (the recent scandal)? Not at all. The amount of money bet on sports through the lottery in Canada is astronomical. The amount bet on the Internet is astronomical. The amount bet illegally is astronomical. And when that kind of money is involved, there is going to be trouble."
Canadians love hockey, and they love to bet on the NHL. In Canada, there are two ways to wager on league games: Find an illegal bookmaker, or place bets with province-run sports games at thousands of lottery outlets throughout Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.
The sports betting games are offered alongside pick-six and scratch-off lottery games.
Lotto-Quebec spokesman Jean-Pierre Roy says an average of a million dollars per week is bet on NHL games via Mise-O-Jeu, the legal sports betting game in Quebec. With the league on a 15-day Olympic break, thousands of hockey-crazed Canadians have to get their gambling fixes elsewhere — Turin, for example. But Roy estimates "only tens of thousands" will be bet on the Olympic hockey matches via Mise-O-Jeu.
League bylaws prohibit players from betting on NHL games — but do not restrict them from betting legally on other sports — and officials are uncomfortable with the situation in Canada.
"We've never liked it," league spokesman Frank Brown said. "We've always maintained that it's a misrepresentation of our game, and we've never gotten a response from the lottery commission. We don't think there should be gambling on our games."
Different provinces call their sports betting games by different names, but they are basically identical. For starters, people are required to select more than one game on a ticket because betting on one game is illegal in Canada.
In Mise-O-Jeu, which translates to bet-on-game, participants must make choices on at least three games. To win, bettors must correctly select the winner in every game they pick — choosing whether the home team or visitor will win, or whether the game will end in a tie.
Winnings are determined by the amount wagered — from $2 and up — the number of games and the odds for each game. For instance, correctly picking favorites in three games will not yield as much as a winning ticket with a correct underdog or two.
There are rules to thwart game-fixing: Overtime counts, but shootouts don't. And own goals in soccer — when a player knocks a ball into his team's goal — are not included in the final score.
Christian says he has used Mise-O-Jeu since he was around 13 years old, helped by the easy access. The legal gambling age in Canada is 18, but he says he rarely was questioned by a lottery agent.
"Nobody cares," he says. "If they ever asked me, I would just say I was doing it for my father."
Christian also bets on NFL games, through the lottery and occasionally with a friend's bookie. He says he got into trouble only once — "when I lost about $300" betting football — but got out of the hole by borrowing from friends and conning his parents with a bogus story about a stolen backpack and school books he had to replace.
Derevensky has heard hundreds of similar — and more troubling — stories. He considers the state-run betting a gateway drug for gambling addicts. Its low price draws in the kids.
"Go ask a bookie to take a $10 bet," he says. "They'll laugh at you. But the lottery will gladly take that bet."
William Harper, a delivery driver buying a snack and some scratch-off tickets at a downtown newsstand, says he is not a big bettor, but when he wants to wager, he knows "a guy." He has gambled with Mise-O-Jeu, but doesn't like having to pick several games.
"If you wanted to bet only the Super Bowl, you couldn't do it (with Mise-O-Jeu)," he says.
There are other reasons Canadian bettors look for a bookie: The lottery doesn't offer the exotic bets — such as who will win the coin toss or score the first touchdown — and the payoff from a bookie is higher because they don't take a cut when you win.
"Gambling and hockey are a way of life in Canada," Derevensky says. "It's become insidious, and the government is partly to blame. Where else can you bet two bucks on hockey games?
"Gambling is socially acceptable, here and around the world. They don't even call it gambling anymore, because that has a bad connotation. They call it gaming. It's not a game."
Derevensky predicts "it's just a matter of time," until more sports gambling programs are legalized in Canada and around the world in an attempt to snare the billions of dollars now going to Internet gambling and illegal bookmakers. But in the meantime, Canadians will make bets on their lunch hours, and investigators will try to keep the game clean.
"I'm only betting $10 or $20," Christian says. "That's not going to hurt anyone. They're saying that Gretzky didn't bet, but I think he knew about it. When you have the wife of the greatest player who ever lived betting a half a million dollars ... well, something isn't right."
He adds with a laugh: "She should bet like me, $10 at a time."