Probe ready to dig deep

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

Rick Tocchet's lawyer denies his client financed an illegal, mob-connected betting ring; Wayne Gretzky spoke in wife Janet's defence about her alleged role; but this National Hockey League crisis won't end soon.

"Anyone who placed a bet or worked as an agent for this organization will be interviewed," Capt. Al Della Fave, spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said yesterday. "Whether they worked as an agent or were simply bettors, both of those things will help us in our investigation."

Tocchet, associate coach of Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes, was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the team after meeting last night with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York. Tocchet was told to avoid contact with the Coyotes as he faces arraignment on charges of promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

That court date could be within a week to 10 days in Trenton, N.J., where police already have charged three men, including a state trooper friend of Tocchet's, with various offences.

The resulting grand jury investigation is expected to focus on whether the alleged activities were gambling on football or an attempt to use exclusive information to alter the outcome of NHL games. The jury could sit until spring.

But after a day of Tocchet's name appearing prominently in the state's Operation Slap Shot, with links to the Bruno-Scarfo crime family, lawyer Kevin Marino fired back last night, calling the allegation "categorically false and irresponsible."

"The suggestion that Rick has any connection to organized crime is simply without basis in fact, clearly defamatory and is highly damaging," Marino said.

Marino, citing Tocchet's 18 years as a character NHLer, added: "We deeply regret the Attorney General's precipitous charges, which threaten to irreparably tarnish his reputation. Mr. Tocchet intends to fight with the same grit and resolve he displayed throughout his long and illustrious NHL career."

Bettman has hired Robert Cleary, the former federal prosecutor who headed the Unabomber case against Theodore Kaczynski, to conduct an internal investigation of Tocchet. (See Page S4.)

"We view the charges against Mr. Tocchet in the most serious terms," Bettman said in a statement.

For the second consecutive day, Coyotes co-owner and head coach Gretzky had to address rumours that his wife, Janet Jones, laid bets with the accused group, even though her name is not on public record.

Asked Tuesday night if she had placed bets for him, Gretzky said: "Absolutely not."

"First of all," he added, "my wife is my best friend. My love for her is deeper than anything. The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved. Am I concerned for (Tocchet and Jones)? Sure, there is concern. I'm more worried about them than me."

Six to 12 NHL players have also been mentioned, but Della Fave said "we cannot confirm or deny the names of any bettors."

Tocchet, 41, could end up facing more than a second- degree money laundering charge.

"It's too early to say," Della Fave said.

"He may get first-degree charges, which carry a longer maximum sentence."

First degree carries a maximum of 20 years, second degree is between five and 10 years.


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