Report: Gretzky knew about ring; wife speaks

Updated: February 10, 2006, 11:39 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky knew about a gambling ring involving his wife and assistant coach Rick Tocchet, sources who cited state wiretaps told the Newark Star-Ledger and The Associated Press.

Star-Ledger reported in Thursday's editions that there is no evidence that Gretzky placed bets, but investigators are looking into whether his wife, Janet Jones Gretzky, placed them for him.

Arraignment Date
Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet, New Jersey State Police Officer James Harney and James Ulner -- who are accused by New Jersey authorities of running an illegal gambling ring -- are to be arraigned Feb. 21 in Mount Holly, N.J.

Tocchet, who is on a leave of absence from the Coyotes and the NHL, has been charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

Harney, an eight-year veteran of the state police force who has been suspended, has been charged with official misconduct, promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. He is free on $100,000 bail.

Ulner has been charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. Authorities said he funneled wagers to Tocchet. He is free on $50,000 bail.

"At no time did I ever place a wager on my husband's behalf," Jones Gretzky said in a statement Thursday. "Other than the occasional horse race, my husband does not bet on any sports."

Gretzky can be heard on wiretaps made within the past month discussing with Tocchet how his wife could avoid being implicated, a source told The Associated Press, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

Gretzky has said that he had no knowledge of the gambling ring.

"The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved," Gretzky said Tuesday. "Am I concerned for both of them? Sure, there's concern from me. I'm more worried about them than me."

Gretzky confirmed after the Coyotes' 5-1 loss to the Stars on Thursday that he would not step down as executive director of Hockey Canada and plans to travel to Torino on Saturday for the Olympics. He didn't address the reports of the wiretaps of his wife's involvement.

Law enforcement officials told the New Jersey newspaper that Jones Gretzky bet $500,000 in recent weeks, including $75,000 in Super Bowl wagers.

Also, a source close to the team told ESPN.com on Thursday that GM Mike Barnett placed a Super Bowl bet with Rick Tocchet for a few hundred dollars. Barnett, according to the source, told investigators he placed the bet with Tocchet because he knew Tocchet was known in the dressing room to be a regular bettor on football games and a regular visitor to nearby Las Vegas during team breaks. The source said Barnett was told by New Jersey investigators that he would not be subpoenaed and that they no longer consider him part of the investigation.

"I met with investigators from the state of New Jersey last night and answered all of their questions honestly and in their entirety," Barnett said in a statement. "They informed me that my conduct has in no way violated either federal or state laws."

Jim O'Neal, the Coyotes' head of security, said in a statement Thursday that the team didn't expect further inquiries from New Jersey investigators.

"There are a lot of rumors circulating with many names included," O'Neal said in the statement. "I was … advised by the authorities today that they did not likely foresee a need for further questioning pertaining to any members of our organization, whether it be Michael Barnett or others."

Authorities say that from Dec. 29 through Feb. 5 -- the day of the Super Bowl -- bettors placed a total of $1.7 million in wagers with the ring run by a New Jersey state trooper, Tocchet and a south Jersey man. All face charges of promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy and are scheduled to be arraigned in state Superior Court in Mount Holly, N.J., on Feb. 21, the state attorney general's office said Thursday.

Tocchet, Gretzky's friend and assistant with the Coyotes, was placed on indefinite leave of absence Wednesday night by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a day after New Jersey police accused him of financing a gambling operation that took bets from about a half dozen current players, among other bettors.

Gretzky could be subpoenaed to testify before a New Jersey grand jury, the Star-Ledger reported.

Elliot Mintz, a spokesman for Jones Gretzky, said in a statement that she may be called as a witness before a grand jury in New Jersey.

"Janet is merely one of a number of witnesses and there is no allegation whatsoever that Janet has violated any law," he said.

Gretzky did not attend the Coyotes' practice in Phoenix on Thursday.

The NHL Players' Association posted a message on a secure Web site Wednesday advising any player who is contacted by law enforcement authorities or the league to contact his lawyer "before talking to anyone," the Toronto Star reported.

Tocchet and his new attorney met with Bettman on Wednesday, officially informing the commissioner of the pending charges Tocchet is facing.

On the advice of attorney Kevin Marino, Tocchet wasn't prepared to respond to specific questions about the allegations, the NHL said in a news release. At the end of the meeting, the league said Tocchet requested the leave of absence.

Bettman agreed to the leave as long as several conditions were met. Tocchet must immediately cease all contact and communication with NHL and team personnel and stay away for the duration of his leave. He will not be allowed to return without Bettman's consent.

The commissioner also reserved the right to change the terms of Tocchet's absence at any time.

"We view the charges against Mr. Tocchet in the most serious terms," Bettman said in a statement. "We have pledged our full cooperation to the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office."

The NHL hired former federal prosecutor Robert J. Cleary, who headed the case against the Unabomber, to investigate Tocchet.

New Jersey authorities told the NHL on Wednesday there is nothing that indicates the gambling activities relate in any way to league games. None of the players was identified in the complaint.

"While there is speculation as to which other NHL personnel may have been involved in this matter, we continue to await guidance in that regard from the New Jersey law enforcement authorities," Bettman said.

In an interview with ESPN.com's Mike Fish, Marino continued to criticize the New Jersey state police, particularly for speaking so extensively to the media.

"I have to tell you, I think that to suggest that Rick Tocchet involved himself in this underworld gambling enterprise, or that he financed it, made money off it or whatever, I think it is very, very irresponsible. It is just completely false," Marino said.

"I am not going to begin to speculate on why they brought the charges that they did," Marino added. "I can only tell you that in this country we respond to the allegations that are leveled against us. And when they are serious allegations we respond to them if they are leveled against us by a grand jury. That hasn't even happened here yet. My expectation is that when and if he is indicted on these charges we will go forward and have him vindicated, because he is not guilty.

"I think it is unfortunate that they have decided to proceed in this fashion. To have Mr. Gretzky, who has not even been accused of a crime, much less indicted, to have his named bandied about as though somehow he is involved, I think is really reprehensible."

State police Col. Rick Fuentes said the investigation -- dubbed "Operation Slap Shot" -- discovered the processing of more than 1,000 wagers, exceeding $1.7 million over several weeks, on professional and college sports, mostly football and basketball.

Attorneys for the other men charged -- James Ulmer and Trooper James Harney -- have said they will fight the charges.

"This case will not be a guilty plea," said Charles A. Peruto Jr., who is representing Ulmer. Ulmer, along with Harney, is accused of taking wagers and cuts of the bets.

Cleary was the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey from 1999-2002 and in the Southern District of Illinois in 2002. He was also the lead prosecutor from 1996-98 in the case against Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who was sentenced to four lifetime terms in prison on charges related to three deaths and the maiming of two scientists.

New Jersey State Police Lt. Gerald Lewis said police investigators will interview other hockey players to get a sense of the scope of the gambling ring and to determine whether others should be charged.

Lewis said authorities also were exploring links between the gambling ring and Philadelphia-area organized crime. He said the investigation so far has turned up only that there might be some links, but authorities are unsure.

He also declined to reveal which players will be interviewed.

The NHL prohibits its players from making wagers, legal or otherwise, on NHL games. League rules do not forbid players from betting legally on other sports (for instance, with an established Las Vegas book). The charges against Tocchet are for illegal gambling per New Jersey law.

Information from ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and The Associated Press contributed to this report.