Gretzky can't shy away from his role in saga

Updated: February 13, 2006, 4:33 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Wayne Gretzky says he doesn't bet. Let's say he's right.

Gretzky says he never bet on professional sports. Or, as he said, "Didn't happen. It's not going to happen. Hasn't happened. It is not something that I have done."

Wayne Gretzky
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsWayne Gretzky talks with reporters after Thursday night's game in Phoenix.

Grant him every word.

But when the Great One says he feels he is defending himself from something he was not involved with, well, the line has to be drawn. And if Gretzky doesn't understand why people are looking to him for either an answer or an explanation, then he's not half the person he appears to be.

And that's just it: Gretzky understands exactly why he is in the middle of the NHL gambling scandal. He just doesn't want to discuss it. From the outside looking in, that's pretty easy to understand.

What anyone can say unequivocally about the case is rather meager. Most of the news has come in the form of leaks from unidentified sources, which is often the way things happen early in a case that hasn't yet fully developed. It's risky business, and it demands going slow and using discretion.

But what is known does affect Gretzky, and it affects him directly. What is known is that his longtime friend and Phoenix associate coach, Rick Tocchet, is accused of being one of the three principal players -- the financier -- in an illegal gambling ring.

Beyond that, Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, has been identified as one of the people who allegedly placed bets through Tocchet's operation. Jones allegedly made big bets and lots of them -- including a reported $75,000 on the Super Bowl alone. There also was a report, again attributed to unidentified sources, that Gretzky was recorded on a wiretap discussing ways his wife could avoid being implicated in the case.

Jones has released a statement in which she declares specifically that she placed no bets on Gretzky's behalf. But that's not really all there is to it, is it? That's just half of the story.

Many fans will want to believe that Gretzky wouldn't risk his position or his image by throwing down bets through illegal bookies, so let's believe it. But is it substantially better if Gretzky knew the entire operation existed and said nothing?

It may not be illegal, but it doesn't pass the smell test, especially not for the NHL, a league still trying to right itself in the wake of its lost season. There is something incredibly troubling about the prospect -- unproven, but a prospect nonetheless -- that Gretzky knew what was going on, that his wife was involved, that his assistant coach was widely known as the go-to guy for secure bookie betting -- and remained silent.

Of course, no one knows what Gretzky did or didn't say. That's just it. For all anyone knows, Gretzky repeatedly told Tocchet to shut down the alleged operation. Maybe he begged his wife to stay away from the whole deal. Maybe Gretzky tried to steer everyone clear of trouble, and they just didn't listen to him.

That's certainly possible. What isn't possible, at least not on any scale of credibility, is that Gretzky coached alongside the man who supposedly operated the gambling ring and lived with a woman who allegedly placed significant bets through it, yet never knew a thing. That's not real world. And whether or not Gretzky ever answers that question, it remains a completely valid one.

Didn't he know? How could he not know? And even if he didn't break the law by ignoring what may have been going on, doesn't it matter if Wayne Gretzky did ignore it?

It's a harsh standard, perhaps. It is a star standard, the kind that people apply to those in the public eye when they might not pass the same test themselves. In Gretzky's case, the purported participants include a really good friend and a family member, and it's impossible to say what anyone would do in a similar situation. The universe isn't cut and dried.

But as for why the questions are relevant, let there be no doubt. As for why Gretzky should be asked them, there's no mystery at all. When he says he didn't bet, the immediate inclination is to take Gretzky at his word. But not "involved"? No. Very involved. Even if he wishes it weren't so.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.