Gambling a way of life

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

HENDERSON, Nev. -- At the moment, the Rick Tocchet investigation is being presented as an isolated incident.

And when it comes to bookmaking rings being spearheaded by assistant coaches, that's probably the case.

But today's media mentality being what it is, the matter won't be allowed to die there.

All over two continents, assignment editors will be pressing their staffs to dig more deeply into the issue. They'll want a more comprehensive insight into gambling in hockey. That will be followed by an examination of the gambling sub-culture in professional sports.

It won't be pretty.

In hockey, gambling is a way of life. With players coming from all over the world, there are always high-stakes bets on international sporting events such as soccer's World Cup, the Olympic tournament, or even the world junior championship.

In any big game in the NHL, players will pin $100 bills to the bulletin board with the understanding that the player who scores the winning goal gets the loot.

On the charter flights, there are card games -- not just poker but even hearts, cribbage, euchre and so on -- for four-figure stakes.

Many teams stage lucrative National Football League playoff pools -- passed off to the media as a team meeting.

All of these activities are legal. As long as no one is taking a cut, people are free to make bets with each other. And really, the result isn't even binding. Gambling debts have no authority in law.

Nevertheless, gambling is pervasive in sports. The examples above are from hockey, but all the other sports have variations --- in many instances with even higher stakes.

Hockey's coaches and general managers know what goes on. In some cases, they participate. But it's written off as being a part of the game's heritage -- which it definitely is.

The rationalization always has been that it was just an aspect of the game's camaraderie.

But the recent revelations have taken the matter to a whole new level. It's not legal if a percentage is being skimmed by the ring's organizer -- which is the allegation here. And if organized crime is involved, which is another one of the allegations, then the matter becomes even more reprehensible.

After all, the bland assertion that gambling debts are not legally collectible isn't really a major concern to the Mafia. If you can't pay, then you can pick out a nice eternal resting place not too far from the New Jersey Devils' home rink. Or you can find another way to pay off the debt -- by throwing a game, for instance.

Is that a stretch? Certainly. But it's not out of the realm of possibility, and it illustrates the dangers of getting involved with that activities of that nature when organized crime might be involved.

Even in the fully legal areas of clubhouse gambling there are problems. If one player wins a large sum of money from another, it's not unreasonable to assume that hard feelings could result.

And athletes being what they are, a victory, either on the field or at the card table, is rarely enjoyed quietly. There's often a lot of posturing and braggadocio, and that too can create animosity on a team and lead to internal rivalries.

There was a time, not that long ago, when professional athletes would sip on a few beers after games. Usually, a galvanized tub was placed in the middle of the room. But stories exposing the links between athletes and heavy drinking, not to mention drunk driving, brought about a change.

In recent years, the public's approach to gambling has changed drastically. But there's still some stigma attached, especially when it's being done by those who might be gambled upon.

In the long run, Rick Tocchet may have done the game a service. He may have exposed a dirty little secret.


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