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How the NHL Deals with Tocchet will Speak Volumes...By Hartley Henderson

In 2005, the hockey world was shocked by gambling charges laid against Phoenix Coyote's coach Rick Tocchet. The prosecution called the case "Operation Slap Shot" and alleged a massive gambling ring involving numerous people in the hockey world including players, coaches and an owner. The New Jersey prosecutor's office held a news conference and posted a flowchart which suggested that Operation Slap Shot was a North American gambling ring with Tocchet, James Harney (a New Jersey State trooper) and another man James Ullmer all partners at the head of the ring and somehow connected to a famous crime family. The amount mentioned in the conference was $1.7 million, and the flowchart was extensive. From listening to the New Jersey authorities, this was going to turn the NHL upside down and force numerous players and possibly coaches, referees and others to resign in disgrace. Listening to the glee with which the New Jersey authorities spoke one had to assume that it would rank up there with the Chicago Black Sox scandal. Rick Tocchet stepped down as Coyote's coach until the investigation was completed.

In May of this year, among little fanfare, Rick Tocchet pled guilty to promoting gambling and last week was given a sentence of 2 years probation. No other players were ever named in the gambling ring and to this day the only "hockey figure" to have been implicated was Wayne Gretzky's wife Janet Jones who apparently bet a lot of money on the Super Bowl via Tocchet. Wayne Gretzky himself said he didn't know anything about Tocchet or his wife's involvement. It must also be noted that no bets were ever placed on hockey and it doesn't appear that Tocchet was a bookie himself. Clearly he wasn't the head of any major gambling ring as the New Jersey police alleged. What happened is fairly evident. Tocchet liked to bet on non-NHL sports and knew some players who wanted to bet on college and pro football as well. Neither Tocchet nor the other NHL personnel could bet in Vegas (or didn't want to) since NHL games were being played at the time and they didn't want to bet offshore given the prevailing anti-internet gambling rants by the DOJ and also the negative publicity that surrounded Jaromir Jagr 3 years earlier for losing close to a million dollars at a Belize sportsbook. Furthermore, the implicit rule that no sports figures bet on any sports could get them in trouble if they were found out. Like most of the U.S. population, the players wanted a wager on some of the bigger football games, but didn't want any publicity for the reasons stated. Consequently, Tocchet likely said "I know someone who you can bet with anonymously", and passed the bets on to Harney.

Whether Tocchet was actually guilty of a crime is uncertain since placing a bet is still not illegal in the United States, only accepting bets. However, because Tocchet acted as a middleman in an exchange with an illegal U.S. bookie, the prosecution could have argued that he was "an agent of the bookie", promoting gambling which is against the law. In fact, on a Toronto sports radio show on Friday, August 17th, Tocchet's lawyer acknowledged this and said that Tocchet pled guilty to a very minor charge so he could get on with his life, but that he was no bookie or mob kingpin. But the lawyer also stated that it was unlikely Tocchet could have been totally set free given the fact he did place wagers for players, and that he was satisfied with the probationary sentence. A cynic might suggest that a more likely reason Tocchet chose to plead guilty and take his lumps is that had he gone to trial, the names of the players, coaches and the owner would have come out in the open which no one wanted. Consequently Tocchet fell on the sword to save the reputation of his friends and the league.

Regardless, the NHL now is in a quandary. Rick Tocchet would like to return as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes and the team's owner Wayne Gretzky actually kept the Phoenix coaching position vacant in hopes that Tocchet would return to his role. Now that Tocchet is essentially clear there seems to be no reason for him not to return. He never actually violated any league rules since the only written NHL stipulation regarding gambling is that nobody associated with the league can bet on NHL games, which all agree he hadn't. At the same time the optics of his returning could be disastrous for the NHL. If Tocchet was allowed to return it would make it appear to many in the outside world that the NHL is not concerned about illegal gambling. League Commissioner Gary Bettman stated that he would make a decision after the sentence was handed down and after the league launches an internal investigation. In early 2006 when it became evident that the betting did not involve the NHL, Bettman released a statement as follows:

"What's becoming increasing clear, and it was from the onset, is that this had nothing to do with hockey. It has nothing to do with the integrity of our game."

If Bettman truly believed that, then there is no reason not to give Tocchet his job back. But outsiders may not be so certain. If Tocchet indeed had connections to Harney, who somehow was associated with the mob, then who is to say that Tocchet wasn't passing on information to him that could help influence underground betting? In the NBA recently, referee Tim Donaghy was implicated for influencing games, including giving the mob critical information that would affect betting on NBA games. So who is to say that Tocchet didn't pass on critical information like unknown injuries or players that would be sitting out? Also, while there have been no ties to the NHL in this ring, who's to say that Tocchet and his colleagues didn't bet on the NHL at some point? Pete Rose vehemently denied ever betting on baseball and in the end it turned out he lied. He not only bet on baseball, but also bet on the Reds for whom he coached. More importantly, Tocchet's return to the coaching job could lead to signs in opponent arenas that say things like "Who are you on tonight, Rick?", and without question every game he coaches will be closely scrutinized. Plus, there will forever be the ongoing quest to find out who the players, coaches and owners were that bet through him.

So the most logical conclusion is that Bettman will state that for the good of the game Tocchet can't return. Mind you that decision brings on other concerns. First of all, Wayne Gretzky wants Tocchet back and without question Gretzky is more popular both in Canada and the United States than is Bettman. Many in the league want Bettman relieved of his duties following some very questionable decisions, most recently including his refusal to allow the Nashville Predators' owner to sell his team to RIM President Jim Balsillie, who in turn wanted to move the team to Hamilton. In fact there is a groundswell movement, especially in Canada, to have Bettman ousted as he is seen as anti-Canadian. The only reason Bettman has been able to keep his job thus far is due to the support by owners such as Wayne Gretzky. If he starts dictating to the owners who they can hire and who they can't, Bettman could be quickly relieved of his job. Gretzky has enough influence with other owners in the league to make that happen.

As well, the NHL has set a precedent that they are a very forgiving league. In 2002 Dany Heatley was convicted of vehicular homicide after he was caught speeding with alcohol in his system, resulting in the death of friend and teammate Dan Snyder. And on the ice, Todd Bertuzzi was arrested and pled guilty to assault causing bodily harm for checking Steve Moore into the ice, which resulted in Moore breaking his neck. In both cases, the punishment handed down by the courts was probation, the exact same sentence handed to Tocchet. The NHL's argument in both cases was the loss of income and the apology by the players were enough to allow both players to return to the ice. So surely if that is the precedent, then Tocchet should be allowed to return as long he issues an apology. If Bettman steadfastly refuses to allow Tocchet to return then the message to the public and to other players is that as far as the NHL is concerned, betting is a more heinous crime than vehicular manslaughter or a vicious assault.

But the issue is even more complex because the other sports leagues have been adamant that betting on their leagues is taboo. The NCAA has conducted a long campaign entitled "Don't bet on it" where it is urging the public not to bet on NCAA games. Bettman's refusal to allow Tocchet back could send a strong message to the other leagues that he supports their call to abandon betting on their games and demands the same in return. Most of the wagers in this ring were apparently on college and pro football, so if Bettman does indeed allow Tocchet back it could send a message to the NCAA that he doesn't support their initiative, which could backfire also.

At the same time, betting by athletes is nothing new. Michael Jordan was known to be a huge bettor and would often lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on rounds of golf. Other athletes with huge gambling problems included Charles Barkley, John Daly, Jaromir Jagr...the list is endless. Those athletes would state that they only bet at casinos, but there is no proof they didn't indeed bet on sports. Yet despite the admission of heavy gambling, no league really batted much of an eyelash at the gambling habits of these players, who were without question the stars of the sport and the selling point of their games. As well, one can't turn on a TV set without seeing these stars playing in poker tournaments, many of which are sponsored by online poker rooms or Vegas casinos which offer sports betting as well. Sure, most of the time they are playing for charity, but they also enter the big tournaments as well for which they pay the entry fee. NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon is actually sponsoring a whole poker tournament in conjunction with Harrah's (which offers sports betting), for charity. As well, former pro players like Dan Pastorini and former college player Brandon Lang sell their opinions on games to those who in turn bet with bookies.

So with the 2007-2008 hockey season around the corner, Gary Bettman and the NHL are indeed in a quandary. Do they allow Tocchet to return and face scrutiny and comments by other leagues that the NHL is soft on sports betting, or do they take a firm stance, tell Tocchet he is not welcome and open themselves up to big criticism and a possible lawsuit given the fact that they have set a precedent of leniency when it comes to dealing with players that break the law? Furthermore, if Bettman tells Tocchet he is not welcome to return will Gretzky start a campaign to have Bettman ousted? It's clearly a no-win situation for the NHL commissioner, but ironically the league only has itself to blame. If the NHL and in fact all North American sports leagues weren't so uptight about the whole issue of gambling they could simply have taken an approach similar to the leagues in Europe. In Britain and a few other countries the only stipulation is that sports figures and their families not wager on any game or event that they are participating in. Other than that there is no rule against gambling. So if a soccer player wants to bet on a cricket match he has no vested interest in, then that's the player's prerogative. The North American leagues have expanded on that to make the written rule that no sports figure can wager on any games in the league by which they are associated. Consequently, no NFL player can wager on NFL games, no Major League baseball player can wager on MLB games, etc. If they indeed stuck to that rule and said "it's not our concern if hockey players want to bet on football", then there would be no reason for the players to bet with illegal bookies. Instead, the players would simply place wagers in Vegas or offshore like the rest of the population does with no backlash. Unfortunately, these leagues have now tied a noose around their necks by somehow expanding that rule to implicitly require no sports figure to bet on any sports whatsoever. In so doing they have forced the players, coaches, referees, etc., who are adults and who will find a way to bet on the Super Bowl or College Football Championship regardless, to seek other methods to bet on those games, including looking underground. Clearly Tim Donaghy and Pete Rose were exceptions because they bet on games in which they were involved. But Tocchet helped hockey players bet on football. Where exactly is the damage to the NHL with that?

The opinion of most in the media is that Bettman will come up with a solution which will allow Tocchet to continue earning an income in the league, but will not put him front and center where he could be scrutinized. Most likely he'll be given a job as a scout or a front office position where he will be involved but will have no influence on the games themselves. The question, however, is will Tocchet and Gretzky will be willing to accept that decision and will it deter players in the NHL and other leagues from betting on sports. We should know the answer to the first question shortly, but as for players never betting again on March Madness or the Super Bowl? Fat chance.

Hartley Henderson

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