Gretzky is great, but judge him on equal ground

Updated: March 16, 2006, 3:17 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The elephant still is over there in the corner, and for the most part, we're all trying to avoid talking about it.

Could someone at least take the poor thing some peanuts and water?

This is figurative, of course. The elephant is an "it," representing Wayne Gretzky's at least peripheral and very-late-in-the-game connection to a New Jersey-based sports gambling ring.

Wayne and Janet Gretzky
Clive Rose/Getty ImagesTerry Frei believes that the public shouldn't automatically assume Wayne Gretzky knew Janet's every financial move.

After the initial what-did-you-know-and-when furor, both on this side of the Atlantic and under the Olympic rings in Torino, nobody seems to want to say much about "it" any longer.

I'm not talking about the news stories in which New Jersey's new attorney general says Janet Jones Gretzky soon will be called to testify before a grand jury investigating the ring.

I'm talking about the reality that this potentially -- with emphasis on the "potentially" -- is a major public relations and credibility disaster for the league.

It's Wayne Gretzky.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that this isn't exactly on a par with realizing, as with Major League Baseball, that the records for much of the past 10 years were juiced and the game was a travesty.

He is no Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro or Barry Bonds.

And the rumor that a few NHL players might have placed wagers -- not on hockey -- with the ring isn't as heinous as it is, well, stupid. What were these folks thinking?

It could be worse.

And the league's own investigation, headed by former federal prosecutor Robert J. Cleary, is ongoing.

As the wheels slowly grind, I understand and support the reluctance to harp on this, to ponder or even talk about the possibilities, as long as that reluctance involves issues of fundamental fairness and isn't a result of another Gretzky Exemption.

Remember early in the season?

When the Coyotes' Shane Doan socked Anaheim's Vitaly Vishnevski in the final minutes and drew an instigating penalty, it seemed Gretzky was in line for the "automatic" $10,000 fine under the new rule. (They might as well have called it the Darryl Sutter Rule, not that he's the only one who pointed and winked and wanted his boys sent a message in the final minutes of blowouts.)

But, gee, we were told that, in effect, the rule really is a guideline, and NHL vice principal/discipline czar Colin Campbell, who certainly understands the intent of the rule, can decide these things on a case-by-case basis.

Campbell was right that having Doan out there isn't exactly the same thing as sending out a designated slug(ger). So Gretzky, who one would think could afford to take a $10,000 hit for the sake of the league and send the message that the rule is a rule, was not fined.

But don't you wonder what would have happened if that precedent-setting example of a final-minutes incident that was outside the parameters of the rule's intent had involved Gerard Gallant?

Or Mike Kitchen?

Or Steve Stirling?

In this instance, it's a fine line, for the media and for the public and, more important, for the league. There are some areas in which Gretzky deserves to be granted the same courtesies we all would want.

So I'll concede the following:

• The implied messages in many columns and commentaries early in the process -- that Janet Jones Gretzky might have been placing bets for her husband because, after all, she is a woman -- were sexist and stupid. And the idea that Gretzky must have known everything his wife was doing, regardless of the amount of money involved, is ridiculous. Does anyone think Gretzky was going online and balancing the family checkbook every morning?

• It's hypocritical for anyone in the media and, to a point, sports leagues themselves, to get too high and mighty about sports gambling. It is a significant component in sports popularity, especially for the NFL. Newspapers run the latest line and have staffers picking games against the spread, and that was true long before wagering became quasi-legal everywhere with online sports books. (I once worked for a newspaper with a bookie in the "back shop," and everyone in the building knew about it as the city-room reporters scrambled to catch politicians in inadvertent violations of campaign contribution acts.)

• This is probably something I shouldn't admit because -- like everyone else in my journalistic generation -- I read "All the President's Men," admired Woodward and Bernstein's work, and speculated about Deep Throat's identity. But I'm not a big fan of the tendency to selectively leak details of investigations.

• Gretzky's mother and grandmother have died within the past three months.

• It is entirely possible Gretzky didn't have a clue about the extent of his assistant coach's involvement in the ring until the last minute. Rick Tocchet was behind the Colorado bench as an assistant for a season and a half. Even ex-Avalanche players with no axes to grind at this point say that even if what authorities say is true, they didn't have a clue that he was a major force in the ring.

But the challenge for all concerned is going to be that Gretzky not get special treatment. That goes both ways.

This case certainly has drawn, and will draw, the attention of folks who deign to comment on hockey only when high-profile figures and hot-button issues come into play. But that shouldn't mean Gretzky should be any more accountable than any other part-owner and/or coach would be. (That's not meant to be sarcastic. Although there aren't any other part-owner/coaches in the league, he shouldn't be treated any different from anyone in either position.)

But as the investigations continue, and when charges and evidence come out, there can't be any more Gretzky Exemptions.

This seems to be setting up as a case of almost everyone in and around the game looking for ways to rationalize holding Gretzky to a different standard, if it becomes necessary.

A less stringent one.

That's not fair, either.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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