Hockey's image takes beating

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

From a lockout to a knockout, the National Hockey League is reeling from the unthinkable.

The squeaky-clean image of Wayne Gretzky is taking a battering after details of a recorded wiretap cast him into the middle of a growing organized gambling scandal involving his assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, Rick Tocchet. On top of that, it was learned a member of Canada's 81-member Olympic Games training camp roster tested positive for steroids.

In a season designed to restore confidence in the league after last season was abandoned by a lockout, could it get worse? Probably.

Gretzky, part-owner and head coach of the Coyotes, was recorded on the wiretap, somebody close to the gambling investigation told a reporter, discussing how his wife Janet could avoid being implicated.

It is alleged she wagered at least $100,000 on football games during the course of the investigation into an alleged illegal gambling ring run by Tocchet and a New Jersey State trooper that took in $1.7 million in wagers during a short time. There is no evidence Gretzky made any bets.

Tocchet, the trooper and another man face charges of promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy during a five-year period and are scheduled to be arraigned in Superior Court Feb. 21, the state Attorney General's office said yesterday. The gambling ring is said to be connected to organized crime.

The gambling controversy and the positive drug test by Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore are the biggest double whammy to hit the league in its 89-year history.

It comes in the middle of a generally positive post-lockout season in which the NHL's rules changes have promoted a faster, higher-scoring game in which the stars have been permitted to shine.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman acted quickly when the gambling charges came to light, banning Tocchet from any contact with the league or anyone in it until it's sorted out.

Tocchet has essentially been abandoned and will return only at Bettman's behest.

Nobody has been convicted of anything yet. Why the severe sanctions?

Because the fixed game is pro sports' deepest fear. No league could survive it.

Sport is not the staged drama of the pro wrestling ring; it is the unfolding of a tiny bit of history each outing and the result must be arrived at fairly. Without that, sport ceases to be sport and its custodians guard that integrity tenaciously.

The NHL is not without a measure of culpability in all this, though. It obviously hasn't guarded that integrity tenaciously enough, not when players such as Jaromir Jagr and Jeremy Roenick admitted gambling in the past -- Jagr's online gambling losses coming close to $500,000, without even a sharp warning. So far, neither is implicated in the current scandal.

The question now is how will Gretzky shake this blow to his impeccable reputation? The highest-scoring player in league history and holder of dozens of records as a player, he represents the face of the league, of all that is upbeat and positive about hockey generally.

He also has come to represent the face of Canada internationally. How can he lead Canada's Olympic team now, especially since he could well be subpoenaed as a witness in the coming court case?

Over the years, NHL players have been regarded as the Dudley Doorights of pro sports, good guys across the board and not given to the excesses of athletes in other sports.

Performance-enhancing substances? No chance. Gambling? Never.

The 700-player NHL has its share of rogues, just like every other league. Get used to it.

The only surprise is that there is any surprise at all, as if the league is somehow immune to the ills that have plagued other pro leagues.

This is a reality show, not a morality play, being played out before our eyes.


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