The optics were as bad as the timing. With the Olympic hockey tournament a week away -- a showcase for a sport still trying to get its pre-lockout groove back -- the NHL general managers were meeting in Henderson, Nev., a suburb of Las Vegas, as the Rick Tocchet gambling mess landed on hockey's lap.
The 41-year-old Tocchet, the Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach, was a real player in his day, a rare combination of skill (440 goals) and toughness (nearly 3,000 penalty minutes). Now, according to allegations by New Jersey police, he is a major player, part of a gambling ring that handled $1.7 million in bets in the past 40 days.
If the gambling probe stopped with Tocchet, a prominent former player and a visible figure behind the bench, it would be terrible enough. But clearly it doesn't.
Tocchet is a conduit, a name that leads to bigger and potentially worse things. Already the name of Janet Jones, wife of Coyotes coach and hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, has leaked; the actress has been implicated in having placed bets through the ring. Her alleged involvement takes the investigation as far up the rung to the top as it can get without actually naming Gretzky himself. There are half a dozen other players, current or former, who also have been implicated, although not named.
There is, of course, a culture of gambling that pervades the NHL and indeed most professional sports, hardly surprising given that these are mostly young, competitive men with large incomes.
Occasionally it erupts into unseemly headlines, like the New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr falling into $500,000 debt with an Internet casino in Belize and paying off at far less than 100 cents on the dollar, or the Los Angeles Kings' Jeremy Roenick being a client of a Florida-based tout service that ran afoul of the FBI. (Eleven of the firm's handicappers pleaded guilty to federal gambling charges.)
According to the service that handled Jagr's account, his betting page was rigged so he was unable to wager on hockey games. Similarly, Roenick told SI last October that he never bet on the NHL, only on football and occasionally college basketball. (While investigators said the player spent in excess of $100,000 for tips, Roenick, who says all of his subsequent bets were placed legally, claims he spent just $10,000.)
Even if the players did not bet on hockey, the integrity of the sport is at risk whenever there is widespread gambling. Just because a player avoids betting on hockey while running up a significant debt doesn't mean he wouldn't be prey to gamblers seeking inside information -- injuries, for example.