To deal with betting scandal, NHL needs to act strong
Posted: Tuesday February 7, 2006 6:04PM; Updated: Tuesday February 7, 2006 6:11PM
Rick Tocchet chats with team captain Shane Doan on the Phoenix bench.
You always have to take breaking news of criminal conduct with a grain of salt. Stories can change, charges can change. What everyone takes as a capital offense one minute is just another dismissed case the next.
But here's my quick take based on what we've heard out of New Jersey on Tuesday afternoon: Rick Tocchet appears to be in a world of trouble. And he may be dragging some of hockey's biggest names down with him.
According to The Associated Press, an investigation into a New Jersey-based bookmaking ring concluded that Tocchet, the assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, was the money man behind the operation. He now faces charges of promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.
That's bad, bad news for the NHL, a league enjoying a nearly miraculous recovery after a year-long labor stoppage and about to embark on a feel-good Olympics break.
To make matters worse, a police official said that six active NHL players made wagers with the ring, along with a "movie celebrity." Although the official refused to name names, a New Jersey TV station is reporting that Pittsburgh's Mark Recchi, a former teammate of Tocchet, allegedly is one of the players.
The movie celebrity? The AP reports that it's Janet Jones, wife of Wayne Gretzky.
It's not a stretch to suggest that that connection, if proven true, could lead to the Great One's departure from the game.
But that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let's not jump to conclusions -- and certainly let's not put guilt before innocence. Let's just get back to what is on the record.
The police official did say that none of the active players bet on hockey.
Some will take that statement as an absolution. If they didn't bet on hockey, what's the harm, right?
Here's the thing -- this isn't like someone going to Vegas and putting $100 on the Seahawks at the MGM Grand. You put down your money and take your chances. You win, they give you cash. You lose, they keep your money. Everything's nice and neat.
When you're dealing with a bookie, things are a little bit ... looser. You're not always laying your money down before the play. Maybe you lose a couple times and you up the ante trying to make win it back. Next thing you know, you're in a tight spot -- and yes, even an athlete making hundreds of thousands or millions can back himself into a corner. Once there, the athlete might be vulnerable to coercion. And if the numbers are big enough, that might lead to a request. And if that request comes from someone connected to a larger criminal endeavor, it can be very, very persuasive.
That doesn't mean a guy will have to throw a game. Maybe it's just a bit of information he has to pass along. Either way, it's a violation of the integrity of the game ... even though the player wasn't betting directly on hockey.
And it doesn't even have to be a staggering sum that's wagered. Just the leverage that's afforded to one party who knows another party is doing something he's not supposed to can be devastating.
After all, every one of these players is reminded at the beginning of each season to avoid this very situation for this very reason. The livelihood of each and every guy in the league depends on maintaining the game's integrity.
Of course, none of this may have happened. Every one of the hockey players who may have been involved might have won their big bets. There may not have been a single visit from Fat Tony asking for a favor.
But the athletes put themselves in a position where there could have been. And that's enough.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's in a tough spot. One thing he has to remember is that the integrity of the game supercedes everything, and every individual.
Tocchet has been charged. Whether or not he's guilty at this point is not the issue. He has damaged the game. He needs to be suspended indefinitely, today.
And when the six NHLers are named, they need to be suspended for the remainder of the season. Immediately.
This situation is going to develop rapidly over the next few days. If things end up looking as bad as they do right now, they'll require strong, decisive action from the league.