The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

Wayne Gretzky may be the Mr. Clean of the sports world, but he certainly has curious bedfellows.

First came Bruce McNall, who went from chairman of the NHL board of governors to noted felon. Gretzky has been associated with Nelson Skalbania, Peter Pocklington and Steve Ellman, all of whom were financial magicians of a dubious kind.

And now, his assistant coach, Rick Tocchet, is caught up in a gambling den with hints of ties to the mob.

Not sure how this is reflected in knee injuries in the NHL this season, but we're checking.

Meantime, there are rumours that Gretzky's wife, Janet, is one of those who enjoyed taking a flutter.

Messy.

Almost makes an NHL commissioner yearn for the quieter days of the lockout.

Not to mention, when Gretzky was asked about his wife's involvement he didn't exactly leap to her defence like a pitbull on a bone. It was all rather wishy-washy.

No matter how you feel about gambling from a moral point of view, this is bad business for the NHL. And it doesn't do much for Gretzky's all-Canadian, apple-pie image either. You play with muck often enough and -- regardless of innocence -- eventually some of it sticks.

Even when you're Teflon Man, superhero of a nation and the sport it loves.

The dilemma that faces the Gretzkys and Tocchet is not unusual: Much like Icarus, they would not be the first to fly high and fall from grace. It has happened to the heroes of every generation.

The gregarious, fun-loving Babe Pratt was banned from professional hockey for gambling early in 1946, but the ban was lifted three weeks later after he made a personal plea to NHL president Red Dutton.

Pete Rose never got that lucky with Bud Selig or, for that matter, with a betting slip.

Michael Jordan admits being "stupid" in his gambling and has related it to his fierce competitiveness.

Psychologists say that is the reason many athletes gamble.

"It's almost like sporting action, except it's directed at gambling action," Ken Kirkwood, a professor of sports ethics at the University of Western Ontario, said. "To be a professional athlete, you have to have a competitive element to your personality that is so much larger and dominant than we regular people can understand.

OBSESSION

"If they get into gambling, the fear is they'll be so obsessed with winning and taking risk. They can't walk away from it as easily as someone else."

Gambling has become the sporting world's pandemic. It's everywhere, catching in its web star athletes the world over. Actually, it's not the gambling that is the real problem, it's what can come with the gambling:

As Germany prepares for the World Cup, Berlin prosecutors charged four referees -- including one from the Bundesliga (German soccer's equivalent to the NHL) -- and 14 players with game fixing.

In Brazil, a gambling ring connected with the national soccer team was arrested and the president of the national commission of referees had to resign.

In Poland, a political party based its re-election platform on a pledge to eliminate the rigging of soccer games. If only Paul Martin had known this was an option, but then, that's a whole different story.

Now, gambling and fixing games are two different things.

Nobody has suggested, at least not yet, that Tocchet or anyone in the NHL was involved in fixing games.

But the mere possibility is chilling.

Joe Namath ran afoul of the NFL for his gambling associates. Major League Baseball once censured Willie Mays for simply being a greeter at a casino.

"They (pro sports) are deathly afraid of the outcome of the game being compromised or messed with," Kirkwood said. "(Punishments such as lifetime bans) are totally out of proportion when you think how much worse it is to try to injure another player intentionally.

"But ... when you have assistant coaches allegedly being involved in gambling and racketeering I can see why the league has to jump in. But it's not out of moral outrage, it's pure business."

In South Africa, Hansie Cronje, captain of the national cricket team, went to his death amid admissions of links to gamblers. In India, former captain Kapil Dev was reduced to tears on TV amid charges of his links to gambling.

None of it should be surprising, Kirkwood said.

Star athletes have the time, the means and the money.

"Derek Sanderson and others spend their whole lives trying to tell athletes how to spend their money wisely. They talk about how much these athletes squander," he said.

"You can imagine if you have lots of money and the competitive drive, then gambling seems to be a natural fit."


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