Commentary

Recent incidents will force Bettman to make some tough calls

Updated: August 22, 2007, 12:58 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In the coming days and weeks, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is going to be asked to make difficult decisions on two prickly issues, decisions whose ramifications may reverberate around the league for years.

Both decisions involve how to deal with men who have run afoul of the law. Both will require Bettman to balance the desire for good public relations with what is right and just, and possibly even compassionate.

First, there is the issue of what to do with disgraced assistant coach Rick Tocchet, who pleaded guilty to a variety of gambling offenses and was ordered to serve two years of probation last week.

Rick Tocchet
AP Photo/John ZiomekLast week, Rick Tocchet received two years' probation for his role in an illegal sports gambling ring.

Assuming Tocchet can keep on the right side of the law for the next couple of years, he can avoid going to jail, which is more than his partners in Operation Slapshot can say.

Since the State of New Jersey never delivered the Full Monty on Tocchet (whatever happened to those mob ties law enforcement officials were so quick to leak when Tocchet was first charged back in early 2006?), it's possible Tocchet could return to the Phoenix Coyotes' bench this fall.

But that shouldn't happen. Tocchet disgraced not only himself, but coach Wayne Gretzky and the entire NHL by setting up his little clubhouse betting parlor. The story threatened to sully what was otherwise a golden return from the lockout for the NHL and distract us from what was a compelling Olympic tournament in Torino, Italy. Those are the kinds of transgressions for which Bettman has a long memory. As well he should.

There won't be many tears shed if Tocchet, who must reapply to return to the NHL after being on "leave" since the allegations were made public, is told to come back for the 2008-09 season. It's the kind of suspension that will resonate with critics who see the NHL as soft and insular.

Had Tocchet showed more sensitivity to his plight, perhaps choosing not to take part in high-profile, high-stakes poker tournaments while waiting for the outcome of his legal case, maybe there might have been a better case for lenience. But apparently, Tocchet couldn't help himself, so clemency won't be an issue for Bettman.

There will be those who clamor for a lifetime ban for the veteran NHLer, but there has been no evidence to suggest Tocchet placed bets on hockey games and the list of NHL players who placed bets with Tocchet is mercifully short. So he should be saved from a Pete Rose-like ban.

The second decision confronting Bettman is a little bit more complex. That is the case of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mark Bell.

Bell recently pleaded guilty to drunken driving with injury and hit-and-run charges in San Jose following an incident a year ago before the start of training camp. Bell will serve a six-month term after the coming season. Although some critics have mistakenly suggested Bell is getting preferential treatment, prosecutors in the California case insist these kinds of sentences are routine so the accused don't lose their jobs.

If hockey existed in a vacuum, the six-month term would likely be enough. Bell would be forced to play this season in the crosshairs of the hockey universe while carrying the burden of the coming jail time. But against the backdrop of the scandals that have rocked other sports this summer -- the Michael Vick dogfighting mess and the gambling scandal surrounding NBA referee Tim Donaghy -- the appetite for justice in the sports world is high.

Mark Bell #7
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMark Bell recently pleaded no contest to drunken driving and hit-and-run charges and received a six-month jail sentence.

One school of thought is that playing in the NHL is a privilege, not a right, and Bell gave up that privilege when he plowed into the back of a parked pickup truck and then fled the scene. Bell was at twice the legal limit for alcohol. The driver of the pickup truck is still recovering from his injuries and has filed a civil suit against Bell.

Should Bettman suspend Bell until he's served his jail time? Should Bettman levy an even harsher penalty, perhaps a one-year suspension? The broader question: If Bettman hands down a one-year suspension now, how does he react the next time something like this happens?

What does Bettman do, for instance, with the Staal brothers, Jordan and Eric, who were both arrested after Eric's bachelor party got out of hand at a Minnesota resort? Both players are exemplary young men. Both pleaded to misdemeanors for their part in the fracas in which no one was injured. If Bettman suspends Bell, does he have to use a sliding scale against the Staal brothers?

Which brings us to the basic question Bettman must consider: What is the motivation for suspending Bell at all?

If a suspension is intended to send a message to the rest of the NHL population, a six-month suspension would serve as a strong message that the league does not consider these types of incidents lightly. But the NHL does not have the kinds of systemic off-ice problems that plague football, basketball and, to a lesser degree, baseball, so one wonders whether such a message needs to be applied. Traditionally, the league has relied on the joint NHL/NHL Players' Association substance abuse and behavioral health program to deal with off-ice substance abuse issues.

Stage 1 of that program includes inpatient treatment, but no penalty from the league. A violation of Stage 1 means a suspension without pay during remaining treatment, with more severe punishment for further transgressions. There have been no reports to suggest Bell has run afoul of the program, and an additional penalty levied by the league would be a dramatic departure from the status quo.

For instance, the league did not suspend Dany Heatley, who was sentenced to three years of probation for his role in a car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder in 2003. Heatley pleaded guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide, driving too fast for conditions, failure to maintain a lane and speeding. Alcohol was not deemed a factor in the crash, which happened during training camp prior to the 2003-04 season. Heatley returned to play in 31 games late in the season.

If the current system works, and the modest number of serious incidents seem to suggest the league and its players are doing something right concerning off-ice problems, what is the justification for further suspension?

It raises the delicate issue of public relations. This has never been the league's strong suit, but does the NHL really enhance its image by further punishing Bell simply because it can?

Then what about the issue of compassion? Yes, sometimes retribution is satisfying. The public loves to see public figures who misbehave get their just desserts.

Bell's behavior was certainly egregious. He's lucky no one was killed. Yet, according to an interview with The Toronto Star's Paul Hunter, Bell has not had a drink since.

Is sobriety and learning from one's awful mistake enough to earn back the privilege of playing in the NHL?

We're about to find out.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.