Big money, big problems

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

This is what the big money gets you.

A story in the Newark Star-Ledger alleges law enforcement officials have Wayne Gretzky on a wiretap talking with Rick Tocchet about his gambling ring. Gretzky has said he had no knowledge of the ring until Tocchet told him Monday. Somebody better get a lawyer.

Another mention in the story says Gretzky's wife Janet Jones bet $500,000 US over a six-week period including $5,000 on the coin toss at the Super Bowl.

Never mind the half a mil. Think about the decadence of a $5,000 bet on a coin toss.

Now, you can make a fine argument that athletes, loaded down with time and money, bet about as often as they breathe.

And you can point out that gambling falls in a grey area in the consciousness of the public and lawmakers.

But what you need to know most is that in pro sports, money is all that matters.

It's all about the money, about getting yours or better yet, getting yours and somebody else's. It's how you assign value, and obtain esteem. It's how you keep count. Since it is so abundant, it has no value that would be recognizable to anyone outside the sports world.

That's why veterans run up the tab at rookie dinners.

That's why players will change cities, uproot their families and tarnish their legacies just to gain money they have no hope of spending.

Entire negotiating tactics are struck on one principle: I want a dollar more than he got.

I don't think one goal or one assist, let alone one game, was influenced by Rick Tocchet or anyone else. So you might wonder: Where's the harm?

Well, how would you feel about subsidizing a player's gambling habit, not just with your ticket but your kid's ticket?

I wonder how New York Ranger ticketholders enjoyed learning Jaromir Jagr lost at least $500,000 on internet gambling?

There are intimations that forwards Jeremy Roenick of the Los Angeles Kings and Travis Green of the Boston Bruins are involved. There are mob ties. No one has said anyone bet on hockey but the threat here is a real one.

A deep-rooted gambling ring could expose how players are blowing their money, all of which, directly or indirectly, comes from the fans.

And that's not going to play well, especially for a league that has minimal profile in most of its markets.

Throw in the potential ruination of Gretzky's standing, inside and outside the game, and you have the makings of a disaster that could be every bit as damaging as the lockout.

Thirty-nine-years ago, Clarence Campbell doubled the size of the NHL from six to 12 franchises. In doing so, he set the NHL on what has been a perpetual search for new revenues and a grander vision for growing the game.

For the past 13 years the architect of that vision has been commissioner Gary Bettman who boosted revenues in this little league, built largely by Chicago gangster Big Jim Norris, to $2 billion.

So what do you get when you're big?

PLAGUE TO PLAGUE

Well, if you're the NHL, you go from plague to plague whose roots are always, always, financial.

The NHL lockout was a clawback of player salary that cost the league a season. Steroids became a tool for tough guys to bulk up and get the big money. Over-the-counter performance-enhancers are taken to ensure the cheques keep coming. The Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley attacks were outgrowths of the game's decision to tolerate fighting and retain the monster truck pull demographic.

The NHL wanted to be big. Players wanted big money. It all seemed like a great idea. Who knew the road to a big-league culture detoured so dramatically to New Jersey?


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