Tocchet avoids jail, gets two years probation

Updated: August 22, 2007, 4:17 PM ET
Associated Press

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. -- A former NHL player and assistant coach who ran an illegal sports gambling ring won't serve jail time despite international headlines linking the case to hockey's biggest star.

Rick Tocchet was ordered Friday to serve two years' probation for his role in the gambling ring.

Tocchet, 43, could have received up to five years in state prison. However, there is a presumption against incarceration for first-time offenders who plead guilty to third- or fourth-degree crimes.

That means the retired Philadelphia Flyer is unlikely to serve any time for his crimes, said Mark Eliades, the deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case.

Under terms of Tocchet's plea deal, the state made no sentencing recommendation, leaving it to the discretion of the court.

Afterward, Tocchet's lawyer, Kevin Marino, said his client long ago acknowledged having made a mistake by becoming involved in illegal gambling. Marino pointed out that the more sensational allegations in the case -- including rumors of mob ties and game fixing -- never materialized.

"Mr. Tocchet never placed a bet on professional hockey. Mr. Tocchet never took a bet on professional hockey," Marino said. "He in no way compromised the integrity of the game of hockey or the National Hockey League."

Before being sentenced on Friday, Tocchet told the judge, "I'm sorry to the court, my family and friends I was involved in this."

An assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes under legendary Wayne Gretzky, Tocchet partnered with a New Jersey state trooper and another man in a sports betting venture they ran for five years. He has been on indefinite leave from his job since being charged, but Marino said Tocchet hopes to return to the sport now that the case has been resolved.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hired lawyer Robert Cleary to conduct an internal investigation. A former federal prosecutor, Cleary is best known for prosecuting Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

"In light of today's events, Mr. Cleary is now in a position to conclude his independent investigation," NHL spokesman Gary Meagher said in a statement on Friday. "Once the commissioner receives Mr. Cleary's report, it is probable that he will want to meet with Mr. Tocchet before making a determination."

He would not answer any questions, including whether Tocchet has a future in professional hockey.

The Phoenix Coyotes also released a statement Friday, saying "Today's sentencing of Mr. Tocchet is the next step in the process of the investigation by the National Hockey League. We will have no further comment until the League's investigation is completed."

James Harney, the trooper who has since been forced to give up his badge, was sentenced earlier this month to five years in prison. The other man, James Ulmer, will be sentenced on Aug. 24.

The case became one of the biggest stories in hockey in February 2006, when the men were charged, because authorities said several of the bettors were people connected to the game. The only name revealed was Janet Jones Gretzky, the wife of Gretzky. But authorities quickly said neither she nor other bettors would be charged.

The case remained international news throughout the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where Gretzky was the general manager of team Canada.

In the investigation that followed, authorities and hockey officials said there's no evidence of betting on hockey.

However, the betting was heavy on other sports. In the 40 days that led up to the charges, the ring handled $1.7 million in bets, including college football bowl games and the Super Bowl.

The business was lucrative for Harney while it lasted. When he was arrested, police took 32 watches and nine televisions from his home, and he forfeited his home, his interest in his wife's home and cash.

No assets were seized from Tocchet, and he was not assessed any fines. Tocchet, a married father of one, can complete probation in his home state of Arizona, Judge Thomas Smith Jr. said.

Harney met Tocchet in the 1990s, when Tocchet was playing for the Philadelphia Flyers and Harney tended bar at a hotel frequented by athletes. After retiring in 2002, Tocchet became Gretzky's top assistant coach with the Coyotes.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press