Tocchet getting off lightly

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

Rick Tocchet is fortunate to have friends such as Wayne Gretzky.

Because if he didn't, if he were coaching someplace else, for someone else, it wouldn't matter much that the National Hockey League has cleared him to return to work in February.

It wouldn't matter because there wouldn't be any work to return to.

Other teams in the same situation would have cast aside Tocchet without a second thought. Other people would have distanced themselves from a man who brought disrepute to his profession, if not potential embarrassment to his game. Other owners happily would have moved away from a man who pleaded guilty to his role in a sports gambling ring, as well as charges of conspiracy to promote gambling.

But Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes gambled that the NHL would go light on Tocchet -- which it did -- and that was apparent when the club never filled the assistant coaching position he vacated amidst so much noise and consternation almost two years ago.

The Coyotes wanted him to return, and now wait for his return.

This was both personal and professional for Gretzky. This was his assistant coach, his friend, in trouble. For hockey reasons alone, Gretzky the learning coach, needed Tocchet the more experienced coach. That's the hockey side of the equation.

The personal side may never be completely explained or unraveled. But yesterday, NHL investigator Robert Cleary indicated without any doubt that Tocchet had placed numerous bets for Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones-Gretzky. Gretzky's loyalty to Tocchet, in this case, was also about family. No one knew more about his wife's gambling habits than Tocchet, the man placing the bets.

And now all of this will go away.

In the end, Operation Slapshot -- as so named by the New Jersey State Police -- was no more than a flick shot. It had little to do with anything in the NHL. It had little to do with hockey. It happened only to involve a famous name, the most famous name in the sport and the wife of the most famous name in the sport.

"After we got past the headlines and the hysteria, this probably didn't have anything to do with NHL hockey," commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday. "... A lot of good people were needlessly and inappropriately dragged through the mud."

Bettman is both correct and incorrect in his approach to Tocchet, claiming what amounted to a two-year suspension -- from the time Tocchet took a forced leave of absence just prior to the Olympics in Turin in 2006 to this coming February -- is punishment enough.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't.

The question here is: Does Rick Tocchet get it?

The answer here is: We're not certain he does.

We're not certain because he has yet to be respectful enough to the league to follow the guidelines that were placed upon him when his leave of absence (suspension) began.

Tocchet was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was not to gamble while on leave from the league, but he did. He was told not to associate with NHL people or anyone involved with the game or the league, but he did. He showed incredibly poor taste by participating in the World Series of Poker this past summer.

Ostensibly, this is akin to either violating parole or the terms of his NHL bail. And for reasons not truly explained by Bettman, the NHL shrugs it off. Even when talking about gambling in the game -- but not on the game -- Bettman took a rather laissez faire stance.

On one hand, he said he was adamantly opposed to any NHL player, or person, gambling. On the other hand, he said he assumed that hockey had the same percentage of gamblers as there are in society. And in between all of that, he said it is a privilege to work in the NHL and that those who do so, need to be held to a higher standard of conduct.

Can you say contradictions?

Bettman also went on to make the point, on more than one occasion, that professional sports gambling in New Jersey is not an illegal activity. He didn't make the point that Tocchet or, for that matter Mrs. Gretzky, weren't in New Jersey when they were making their bets -- or phoning them in across state lines.

The investigator, Cleary, did explain that Tocchet was being paid a percentage of winnings. He just wouldn't go into how high those figures were. Tocchet did plead guilty for his part in running a sports gambling ring.

For that, he got two years probation and what amounts to a two-year suspension from the NHL.

Rather soft punishment for bringing disrepute -- overblown as it was -- to the game.

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2006

FEB. 7TH

Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet is implicated in Operation Slapshot, described by New Jersey State Police as an illegal sports gambling operation.

FEB. 8TH

Tocchet is granted an immediate leave of absence by the National Hockey League and told to refrain from any contact with league or club personnel.

AUG. 3RD

Disgraced State Trooper James Harney, who claimed to be in a partnership with Tocchet, pleads guilty to conspiracy, promoting gambling and official misconduct.

DEC. 2ND

A third man, James Ulmer, pleads guilty to bookmaking and agreed to co-operate with authorities.

2007

MAY 25TH

Tocchet pleads guilty to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling.

AUG. 3RD

Harney is sentenced to five years in prison. In court, he did say that he and Tocchet had been equal partners for five years.

AUG. 17TH

Tocchet is ordered to serve two years probation for his role in gambling ring.

NOV. 1ST

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman approves the re-instatement of Tocchet from his leave of absence effective Feb. 7, 2008. Conditions have been placed on his reinstatement, which can be revoked.


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