Donaghy-like mess unlikely in NHL, but league needs to keep eyes open

Updated: July 26, 2007, 9:07 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

As the NBA wrestles with what commissioner David Stern calls the worst crisis of his tenure, the Tim Donaghy mess in the summer of sports scandal, it's not gross misconduct to wonder: Can it happen in the NHL, too?

Of course it can … in theory.

Instead of gloating about the NBA's mess, and perhaps becoming overconfident because hockey is far less vulnerable to "fixing" or "shaving" issues than other sports, the NHL should react with heightened vigilance.

Rick Tocchet
AP Photo/Tom HoodEarlier this year, former Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet pleaded guilty to running a gambling ring.
Among other things, the NHL must continue to try to get to the bottom of everything and everyone involved in the Rick Tocchet sports gambling ring to make sure it didn't affect the actual integrity of the NHL's own product.

The collective yawns and sighs of relief throughout the sport in the wake of Tocchet's guilty plea, and the lack of a trial or bombshell revelations, shouldn't allow the issue to die.

An NHL assistant coach and former star becoming a gambling-ring mogul? Folks in and connected with the league placing wagers with the ring? Granted, some of the wagering seemed to be done indirectly and as casually as if it was buying two squares in a Super Bowl quarter-by-quarter sheet, but that shouldn't change the bottom line.

The league's independent investigation must go hell-bent into the corners, no matter what's there.

It can't be allowed to happen again, even if hockey people weren't gambling on hockey. With Tocchet's ring, or anywhere else, there are plenty of imaginable scenarios under which gambling losses or gambling involvement could cause someone involved in the NHL to participate in wagering-related shenanigans tied to hockey itself.

It might be harder to pull off or hide than in other sports. It might even be of dubious cost-effectiveness for those trying to manipulate the outcome, but it's conceivable.

Gambling on NHL games is small potatoes, representing only about 2 percent of the take for legalized Nevada sports books, for example. Where it does happen, whether in Nevada, online, with bookies, or various Canadian lotteries' parlay tickets, the bulk of the wagering is based on a money line. It most often comes down to picking a winner and accepting a less than even-money payoff if you collect on the favorite. On many games, you can choose to "give" or "get" a goal and a half, with adjusted payoffs, and that can make the empty-net goal the decider of some wagers. But, for the most part, the "spread" issue is irrelevant in hockey.

A huge wager on a single hockey game, or a pattern of enough wagers, would at least raise eyebrows, virtually no matter where they're placed. In this era, when eyebrows are raised, the word gets around.

The news even can get to Toronto and New York. In the league's offices, the referees' work is reviewed, critiqued, and often spindled and mutilated.

As in the NBA, and also in the other sports, refereeing an NHL game involves a relentless night's work of subjectivity, of deciding when to make a call, and when not to make a call. But there are so many whistles in the NBA, and it is such a tough game to call under any circumstances in this era, somebody on the floor thinks every call is an abomination. But the most troubling aspect is that Donaghy's alleged manipulations might have been going on for two seasons -- and that the NBA apparently didn't know the feds were targeting Donaghy until last month.

In hockey?

If the right NHL teams from the right markets are playing, every time a penalty is called, chances are one team's radio crew is portraying this as the worst miscarriage of justice since the Tea Tax, while the other team's radio crew is saying the egregious infraction was so obvious that Tommy the Pinball Wizard could have seen that one, and it's about darned time! That underscores the subjective nature of the whistle-blowers' craft.

For all the justified talk about better defining what is and isn't legal, there still is considerable subjectivity, and intuitive feel, involved in NHL officiating.

But fixing a game?

I'm being na´ve, perhaps, but because of the relatively limited opportunities to make calls, even in the most penalty-filled games, I think it would be too hard to hide, and certainly if it was part of a pattern of desperate behavior.

If a referee had to influence a game with some subtlety, the problem is, would it work? Calling an inordinate number of penalties, or calling one at the "right" time, wouldn't necessarily be decisive, whether for a wagering referee or an, ahem, "gambling figure" influencing him. If it comes down to swallowing whistles, the relatively recent addition of the second referee means both have to be in the no-call mode.

I do think some of the coverage of this Donaghy mess has overdramatized the "shock" involved. Come on, for all of Stern's anguish, which at least is a bit of a change of pace from the airs of arrogance he increasingly has displayed in recent years, does anyone really think a game official's being on the, um, dole truly shocks folks in the upper echelons of all major league offices?

You don't have to agree with some of the think-the-worst rubbish being circulated out there now -- in which every gamblers' agonizing loss in the past few years now has been transformed into "funny business," or every favorite team's close loss was because the refs decided to play with the spread -- to conclude that leagues were at least considering that this might happen. (Or even that it has happened under the radar in the past.)

But this changes the picture again. Game officials are going to be under more scrutiny than ever, and they're going to sacrifice privacy on so many fronts and accept that leagues will be watching every move, including the ATM card or the checkbook. It's all part of a bigger picture, and that's why I think it's a mistake to so tightly focus on referees and other game officials in the discussion of the Donaghy bombshell.

Yes, players make tons of money, making them seemingly invulnerable to being bribed. Using common sense, how much would you have to pay a goaltender or small forward or tailback to try to keep the spread on the right side of the number? But in this era of athletes' hitting the police reports, the other pitfall is the off-field conduct that leaves players open to blackmail or other pressures. That needs to be policed and monitored, now more than ever.

The NHL doesn't find itself walking the sort of tightrope the NFL is on every day -- knowing and accepting that gambling is a major component of its popularity and acknowledging that with such things as zealous policing of injury reports, yet officially harrumphing about it for public consumption.

The NHL hasn't embraced Las Vegas. But I still think the NHL could pull off having a franchise in Las Vegas without having it cause a major problem. But that's another story.

The NHL doesn't face as much temptation. Yet, despite the small piece of the pie represented by hockey wagering, gamblers can still seek inside information from players, coaches, trainers, sportswriters and broadcasters, whether through casual contact or arm-twisting, literal or figurative.

I happen to believe that one of hockey's strengths (and it's probably one of the reasons you're reading a specialized corner of an omnibus site) is its collective character, a trait that seems to stand out more every day. I've got my quibbles with some of the hockey code and culture, including the tendency of its most blinkered wing to assume that anyone who doesn't buy into all of it is a moron, but I still cling to that general faith about the character of the sport.

That's a bit of a shield, too.

But the best way to prevent a Donaghy scandal -- or a variation thereof, not necessarily involving referees -- from taking place in hockey? Keep assuming it can happen.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."

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."