Failing To Learn From Pete Rose

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 15, 2006
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The only thing the NHL has going for it right now, at least on this side of the 49th parallel, is the fact that most Americans have no idea that the league had just returned from 301 days of labor mismanagement.

One can just imagine how this is playing out in Canada.

Just in case you missed it somehow, Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet is under the gun for money laundering, promoting gambling and conspiracy. Investigators say he provided the startup money for an illegal gambling operation that may have ties to organized crime in New Jersey. It remains to be seen how deep Tocchet is involved in the operation that was reported to have involved $1.7 million in wagers over a 40-day period.

Most in Tocchet’s situation would find themselves under an avalanche of media scrutiny, but thanks to the possible involvement of the game’s biggest star, he’s going nearly unnoticed.

As of this writing, Wayne Gretzky has done nothing more than offer up non-committed sound bites. His wife, actress Janet Jones, has allegedly placed bets with Tocchet totalling $500,000 while Gretzky, the Coyotes’ head coach and owner, was happy to allow his good friend to continue coaching until the league stepped in and squashed the idea. Action that seemed even crazier after the Newark Star Ledger reported that wiretaps showed Gretzky was, at the very least, aware of the operation.

Gretzky needs to get in front of this. He needs to be seen leading the fight to clean up the sport for which he is indelibly marked.

His “you’ll have to ask her” comments about his wife’s involvement just won’t cut it.

Tocchet will get his. If found guilty, the former defenseman could do time and most likely will be forever banned from the game. He was not a Hall of Fame type player, so that’s not an issue, but even if he accepts a plea bargain or makes other such arrangements, his hockey career is over. The league cannot afford to have this hanging over the game. Tocchet will forever be a marked man.

To its credit, the NHL has moved fast to confront the problem. Commissioner Gary Bettman has brought in Unabomber prosecutor Bob Clearly to take a look at things.

The long-time investigator has also been instructed to work closely with New Jersey law enforcement officials.

This, folks, is serious.

One may think it’s not fair that Gretzky is receiving most of the media attention while Tocchet remains nearly untouched, despite his being the alleged ring leader. Welcome to the real world. Gretzky’s star power alone will draw the attention of anyone following this case.

No. 99 is more than just a Hall of Famer. He’s a huge star in this country, an icon in his native Canada, and for most, the very face of the game itself. Innocent, guilty or just a little dirty ... when you come with that kind of recognition, you’re an easy target.

Even though the great majority of NHL teams are in the United States, it’s hard to come up with an American version of the Gretzky situation. Michael Jordan was as spectacular and popular, but tales of gambling had followed him for years so any indiscretion on his part wouldn’t have been been shocking. David Robinson had the good-guy reputation like the man from Brantford, Ontario, but lacked the legendary status. In fact, only one athlete in the world could probably measure up to Gretzky-size expectations, and that’s Pele. And not even the uber-famous Brazilian is involved with the daily operations of his sport.

As of now, there is no indication that any of the parties involved have bet on hockey. If anyone had placed money on the NHL, it’s over for them.

Look, it’s quite simple. If you’re involved with sport in any way, don’t gamble. If you need a thrill, take up skydiving or buy yourself a crotch rocket. The rush is just not worth the scrutiny.

But if you feel you have to gamble because you’re afraid of heights or your wife won’t let you have a bike then do it legally. Belly up to the craps table or drop a few grand on black jack. Stay away from the sportsbooks. It will just raise suspicion.

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