Team more concerned with playoffs than reaction

Updated: February 8, 2006, 7:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Rick Tocchet is a widely respected assistant coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, handpicked by good friend Wayne Gretzky to help turn the Coyotes into a playoff team. Before that, he was one of the most respected players of his generation. Fearless. Gritty. Talented.

Operation Slap Shot
AP/Mel EvansAn eight-month undercover investigation into the ring discovered the processing of more than 1,000 wagers, exceeding $1.7 million, on professional and college sports.

If the allegations leveled against Tocchet by the New Jersey police prove true, it also appears that in his spare time, Tocchet was the moneyman behind a sophisticated illegal gambling ring, with ties to organized crime. During a 40-day period, this gambling ring allegedly took in $1.7 million in bets -- including bets from NHL players and others connected to the game, as well as Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones -- according to Associated Press reports.

That's bad, right?

Well, bad is a relative term, apparently, when it comes to the NHL. In spite of the charges announced in New Jersey on Tuesday, Gretzky told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Tocchet would be behind the bench as the Coyotes hosted the Chicago Blackhawks that night. (Those plans changed, however -- Tocchet skipped the game and instead flew to New York City to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman.)

Illegal gambling? Prison? Money laundering? Never mind that, we're in the middle of a playoff race.

Surreal? Just a little. Except this is real. Real undercover cops, a real investigation, real mobsters, real charges and real time. Tocchet is charged with second-degree promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy, each of which carries a maximum 10-year jail sentence, New Jersey prosecutorial officials told ESPN.com Tuesday afternoon.

You'd think that prospect might have been a bit sobering for Tocchet and the Coyotes, but the team seemed more concerned with exploiting the Blackhawks' defense than how this situation would look to a hockey public just beginning to trust the game again.

"In response to the allegations against Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet, and consistent with club policy, the Phoenix Coyotes organization declines further comment on the situation until definitive information becomes available," president and COO Doug Moss said in a press release. "The focus of the Coyotes organization is to continue our drive for a playoff position."

OK, then. Game on.

The NHL was only slightly less tepid in its response.

"While we know little more than has been released publicly, we understand that Mr. Tocchet's conduct in no way involved betting on hockey. And while betting on football or other sports may be the pervasive issue, it in no way justifies poor judgment or otherwise alleged inappropriate action," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement.

As for those half-dozen to a dozen people connected to the league who might have placed wagers with the syndicate, Daly reiterated that there's no indication anyone bet on hockey.

"We take this issue very seriously and will monitor the proceedings closely," Daly said.

Serious is clearly also relative.

An assistant NHL coach is charged with gambling crimes that connect him to organized crime, but had all intentions of turning up on an NHL bench before turning himself in to authorities. The coach's wife is implicated by law enforcement sources and he passes it off as though it was nothing.

What are we missing here?

Does no one else see any red flags?

Rick Tocchet
Juan Ocampo/Getty ImagesRick Tocchet is expected to travel to New Jersey to respond to gambling charges.

Lots of people gamble. That's a given. Maybe a bunch of hockey types (and maybe their wives) got together and made a few wagers. No big deal, right? Well, obviously the New Jersey State Police felt it was a big enough deal to launch an undercover sting operation.

As one respected former NHLer said, "This isn't your office Super Bowl pool.

"This can't be good. The organized crime thing can't be good."

Every year, the NHL sends in members of its security group to talk to NHL players about the pitfalls of being a professional hockey player. They warn players about the dangers of drugs, performance-enhancing supplements, alcohol and gambling, especially betting on pro sports.

The gambling culture in the NHL is time-honored and well-established. But it's one thing to play a few hands of poker, even if the pot goes to $6,000 or $7,000, as this player has seen happen. It's another to bet on professional sports when the money chain leads to organized crime.

OK, so you say you didn't bet on hockey. Pete Rose said didn't bet on baseball. Wasn't that his story for years?

And whether the bets were made on hockey is really moot when the average fan reads about this and wonders why everyone seems to be giving a collective shrug of their shoulders.

A league source told ESPN.com that Bettman was livid when he found out. Good thing. Too bad he didn't share that anger with the public.

To be fair, league officials didn't find out about the investigation and the charges until very late Monday night. As of Tuesday afternoon, a league official said they didn't know the identities of those who allegedly made bets, although an official with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice told ESPN.com those bettors are scattered across the United States and Canada, which has no doubt made for a lot of nervous folks around the NHL.

But how about this: When the NHL finds out who those people are, and presumably the New Jersey State Police would be happy to share that information with the league in a timely fashion, the NHL should suspend them until the league can perform its own investigation and prove that (a) no one bet on hockey games and (b) no one broke any laws in placing those bets.

Operation Slap Shot
At A Glance
An undercover investigation by New Jersey state police identified an alleged sports gambling ring that authorities say had been in operation over the last five years. Dubbed "Operation Slap Shot" by authorities, the ring discovered the processing of more than 1,000 wagers, exceeding $1.7 million, on professional and college sports. Law enforcement officials continue their investigation, but have said the case involves professional hockey players. Here's a look at the people charged or otherwise implicated thus far:

• Rick Tocchet, associate coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Tocchet, 41, played 18 NHL seasons between 1984 and 2002, including 11 with the Philadelphia Flyers. He's one of only four players in NHL history to collect 400 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes.

He was expected to be arraigned in Superior Court in Burlington County within two weeks on charges promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

• James Harney, 40, of Evesham Township, an eight-year veteran of the state police. Authorities say he became friendly with Tocchet about 10 years ago when he was a bartender at a Philadelphia Holiday Inn that Tocchet frequented. After he was charged with official misconduct, promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy, he was suspended from the his job. He is free on $100,000 bail.

• James Ulmer, 40, of Woolwich Township, was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. Authorities said he funneled wagers to Tocchet. He is free on $50,000 bail.

• Janet Jones, 45, wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky. An actress, she has appeared in "The Flamingo Kid" and "A Chorus Line." Law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said she was one of the bettors.

-- Associated Press

Then it should revisit its gambling policy, which reads as follows from Exhibit 14, Standard club rules: "Gambling on any NHL game is prohibited."

That's it.

But it's clearly not enough.

"I think it's very important to come down very hard on gambling," said Stanley Teitelbaum, a sports psychologist who recently penned the book "Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols." In his book, Teitelbaum devotes several chapters to gambling scandals that rocked various sports, including Major League Baseball and college basketball. He did not come across any gambling scandals related to hockey, but the principles remain universal.

Sports leagues have always reacted more strongly to gambling than drug, alcohol and sexual misadventures because it is the area that is most closely tied to the integrity of the game, he said.

It might not be right -- in fact, it might say more about society than we would like to admit -- but fans, who forgive much about their sporting heroes, will stay away in droves if there isn't complete certainty that the games aren't being fixed or manipulated by outside forces, such as organized crime. In this case, the Bruno-Scarfo crime family, which operates in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, was identified by state police as having ties to Tocchet's operation.

In a week, the NHL's finest players (or at least the finest players not suffering from groin injuries), will be on the world's grandest stage at the Torino Olympics. It should be a great celebration of the game as a whole and a celebration of the return of the NHL from the ashes of last year's lockout.

Record attendance. A brand new, exciting product on the ice. Unprecedented buzz in NHL cities where playoff races promise to come down to the final moment of the final weekend.

Now we have Mr. Action, Rick Tocchet, and his alleged merry band of bettors.

Where the path takes both Tocchet and the game is anyone's guess. But chances are it's a path that is going to get a lot darker than Tuesday's "What, me worry?" reaction from the league would suggest.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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