Will Bettman be the bettor man?

David W. Unkle— For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 2:08 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- Rick Tocchet could have done the right thing in February 2006 when initially confronted with allegations of his involvement in the gambling operation dubbed “Operation Slap Shot” by the New Jersey State Police Organized Crime Bureau.

Instead, Tocchet’s attorney Kevin Marino said at the time that, “We remain hopeful that when the (New Jersey State) Attorney General’s office has completed its review of the charges against (Tocchet), it will elect to dismiss this case rather than seek an indictment.”

Just a year ago the New Jersey Department of Law and the State Police were served with notice that Tocchet might seek $50 million in current (and future) damages to his reputation for leaks about the case.

Whose Kool-Aid was Tocchet drinking?

Instead of coming clean, Tocchet left the allegations festering like a boil on the back of the NHL. And since Tocchet’s damages turned out to be self-inflicted, should the NHL now seek damages against him for sullying the league’s reputation?

Now is the time for commissioner Gary Bettman to send a message and end Tocchet’s association with professional hockey.

It’s one thing if Tocchet confessed right from the start. It’s another thing to do it when your feet are held to the fire.

And shame on the Phoenix Coyotes, who issued a statement indicating that they would take a “wait-and-see” approach regarding Tocchet’s future, effectively putting Bettman on the hook for the decision. Why not take the moral high road and send a message to Tocchet, and other current NHLers, that hockey is unwilling to put up with mug-shot members? But this is from an organization where head coach Wayne Gretzky proclaimed early on in the investigation that “everyone in the world is innocent until proven guilty.”

Missing to Gretzky's statement were the additional words, “…or they admit guilt.”

It's one thing if Tocchet lied to Gretzky, then the Great One's statement is legitimate. However, if he told him the truth and Gretzky still supported him, that's a far-more serious matter. Let's also remember it was Gretzky who was reportedly heard on tape trying to extricate his wife from this imbroglio.

The problem with the “new NHL” is that there are no cultural mores about right and wrong. What is determined “right” for one owner (you can substitute team or player here) is not for another. How can you expect compliance when the target seems to be shifting?

You can’t have compliance without first establishing the culture. So instead of reacting to the next incident, Bettman should establish a panel of players, owners and league representatives, along with a few ethics scholars to begin to create a professional sports league that is concerned with professionalism on and off the ice. Then enforce it regardless of the name and the contributions made to this great sport.

Do that and deliberate injuries will decrease. Do that and members of the NHL fraternity will hopefully understand the quickest way to joining the regular work force is to deviate from what is determined ethical, moral, and legal. Do that and sports fans in North America will begin to pay attention. It may even pull in more viewers to the sport.

Now is the time for Bettman to get his house in order and keep the NHL from slipping into the abyss. Should Bettman afford Tocchet the opportunity to return to the NHL, it would secure his bestowment of the “Reverse Midas Touch Award,” an honour that many observers feel is long overdue.

At Monday's press conference prior to Game One of the Stanley Cup finals, Bettman was queried by another writer on Tocchet's status. His response (unedited and emphasis added):

"You're asking me to prognosticate. Rick Tocchet pled guilty to a Grade 3 felony. He has yet to be sentenced. I believe that will take place somewhere in the August teens. We will finally have an opportunity to have Bob Cleary, who has been conducting our investigation, meet with him. So I'm not really in a position to say what's going to happen until there's a complete disposition of his case and until our independent investigator has had an opportunity to interview him, finish interviewing some other people, and then present his report. At that point I'll be in a position to make a determination in terms of what his status should or should not be."

FACT: Rick Tocchet pled guilty to a felony in the State of New Jersey.

FACT: The felony involved gambling.

FACT: The gambling involved more than just the office Super Bowl pool consisting of a sheet of paper with empty boxes.

It's irrelevant whether or not Tocchet bet on hockey (which he stated he did not). It's the fact that he pled guilty to the felony and that the felony involved gambling. It's the fact that he didn't admit his involvement months ago.

Send the message now when the eyes are focused on the NHL during the Stanley Cup finals, not in August when folks are vacationing and preparing for the start of the school year. And let's make one thing clear: I thank Rick Tocchet for the contributions he made to hockey, but that does not excuse what he did and has admitted to doing.

In the process of amassing nearly 3,000 penalty minutes over 18 NHL seasons, Tocchet doled out his share of black eyes. None was bigger than the one he left Bettman and the fans of the NHL.

David Unkle can be reached at: topcatsports@canoemail.com


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