Jim Kelley
Thursday February 7th, 2008

In the grand scheme of things, the return of Rick Tocchet behind the bench as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes would generate about as much attention as Bill Belichick's personal video collection. You know something's there, but whatever it is seems inconsequential in the realities of the moment.

Tocchet, you may recall, got caught in a sports betting scandal the depths of which were teased as a major debacle -- if the New Jersey State Police and various law enforcement officials were to be believed. The reality was significantly less. Tocchet was found to be a small-time crook. He pled guilty last spring to third degree conspiracy and promoting gambling, an admission of being a partner in a betting ring that handled a fair amount of football bets.

The Jersey cops had little use for Tocchet after they nailed one of their own in the investigation. Via the NHL's own investigation -- not all of which was made public -- we've been told that he never placed or accepted wagers on hockey. Yet, Commissioner Gary Bettman could have pretty much banned Tocchet from the game.

Tocchet was sidelined -- by an official leave of absence -- for the length of a too-long inquiry by law enforcement and the NHL. Bettman extended the period even after the police were finished largely because Tocchet didn't even have the good sense to stay away from a poker tournament in Las Vegas while his NHL future was still in doubt. The league was so concerned it took the additional, unprecedented step of forcing him into the its substance and behavioral abuse program, a clear indication that Tocchet was seen as a problem gambler unwilling or unable to control himself.

Add it all up and it came out to a full two years. That's a fair amount of time served, and everyone in the hockey world was ready to let things move on.

Everyone, it seems, except Wayne Gretzky.

Now, the Great One is often the victim of his own unintended words, but it's impossible to ignore his most recent comment about his long-time friend.

"It killed him," Gretzky told veteran hockey writer Eric Duhatschek of the Canadian-based newspaper The Globe and Mail. "You go through various stages - being disappointed, being embarrassed. But for him, now, his mom and dad are older people and they've been through a lot. It was tough on everybody, for him and his family, but you know what? He's come through it. He's grateful to the league for giving him a second chance. He's grateful for how the league handled the investigation. There's no animosity."

No animosity? As if Tocchet and the Coyotes were the wronged parties here? When even Tocchet admitted that he made a mistake? When only through the grace of Bettman will he be allowed anywhere near a hockey operation? In a world of ever-evolving media spin, have we really slipped to the point where the guilty are to be accepted as innocent? Are we really supposed to embrace the idea that Tocchet is the wronged party and we should be grateful for his forgiveness?

Even Tocchet wouldn't go that far. In guarded remarks during a televised press conference in Phoenix on Wednesday, he gave a prepared statement, answered a few questions and made a point of driving home that his two years away from the game was a "tough time." He noted that it was only "a football betting thing" and he was grateful that the Coyotes -- read Gretzky -- kept his job open for him.

That's the key point. If it weren't for the will of Gretzky, there would be no job -- at least not coaching. Hockey does take care of its own, but it's not likely that another team would have opened the door to its bench the way Gretzky did.

Lest we forget: Tocchet's own actions dragged the NHL through the mud. Coyotes GM Mike Barnett lost his job partly because he placed a bet on the Super Bowl. Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones Gretzky, had her proclivity for high- stakes wagers (something that would have remained largely private had she not availed herself of Tocchet's service) made public. Gretzky himself underwent rigorous scrutiny and had his reputation somewhat tarnished when he was forced to make incredulous statements about his wife's actions and his distance from them.

It's fashionable to blame the authorities and especially the media, but in the end, those agencies were just doing their jobs. Bettman had it right when he reinstated Tocchet, saying, "The fact is, the reality of this case never lived up to the massive amount of hype and speculation circulating after the investigation was made public." It's also true that Tocchet pled guilty to a crime. For anyone to suggest that he was somehow wronged, well, that's an affront to logic, to Bettman's fairness and his willingness to accommodate the wishes of the game's greatest player.

Bettman didn't owe that to Wayne Gretzky, but Gretzky, who has done more for Bettman and the NHL than the commissioner could ever do for him, would be wise to at least choose his words more carefully should the matter come to the forefront again.

The Habs have it

Lost in the crisis of goaltending confidence and the slew of noteworthy injuries that have brought the Ottawa Senators back to the pack in the Eastern Conference is the rise of the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs, through the games played on Wednesday night, have moved to fourth overall in the league and are challenging the Senators for first place in both the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference. It's not a fluke.

The Canadiens are getting excellent goaltending from Christobol Huet, who has been in net during the bulk of a run that has seen the team pick up 27 of a possible 36 points since Christmas. The power play, even without last season's pp goal-scoring leader Sheldon Souray, is the best in the league. The scoring is balanced, the defense is improved, and the team is healthy. Coach Guy Carbonneau appears to have made tremendous strides, getting his players to work harder while he provides game plans and direction that weren't always in evidence last season.

There are people who think the Habs are a fluke, but they are a more balanced team than even the fully healthy Senators. When Huet is at his best, he is better than Ottawa goalies Ray Emery or Martin Gerber. That fact can't go unnoticed by the Senators come trade deadline day.

Tale of two cities

Interesting contrast in the way the NHL and the NFL do business.

On Wednesday, Gary Bettman went to Nashville for a town meeting and made a solid pitch (he got a standing ovation) regarding the future of that beleaguered franchise. He made strong statements of support for the new ownership there. He made a point of noting that the NHL honored its commitment to keeping the Predators there and to the terms of the arena lease agreement. He also gently reminded the region that there is room for growth in the marketplace with regard to ticket sales, suite leases, sponsorships and broadcast licenses.

Simply put, Bettman said the NHL would stand by the franchise and its new ownership while the community decides whether it will support the team in the business areas in which it needs to grow.

Contrast that to the fact that the NFL gave it's rubber-stamp approval for the Bills to grab for a bigger piece of a richer market by allowing the team to short fans in Buffalo by a home game in order to play one in Toronto, a city across the border and about 100 miles from home base.

The approval comes despite the fact that the Bills annually play to near 100 percent capacity. During each of the past five seasons, they have sold every ticket in the 73,000-plus seat stadium they built and paid for with taxpayer dollars. The fans had no say in the fact that owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.'s name is on the building, thus depriving the franchise of income from naming rights, and that they must pay in excess of $3 million a season in tax dollars that go directly to Wilson's subsidized operating budget.

This tremendous fan support in Buffalo comes despite the fact that the Bills haven't made the playoffs for eight straight years and certainly aren't a lock to do it next season. What's more, fans in Buffalo have paid for a major renovation of that stadium (providing more luxury suites than almost any building in the league). The team is pretty much maxed out in suite sales, sponsorships, broadcast revenue and ticket sales.

When Wilson appeared in Toronto on Wednesday to announce a deal that would have the Bills play three preseason and five regular season games in the appreciably smaller Rogers Centre (about 53,000 for football), the promoter said the income gap would be made up by charging premium prices to Canadian fans.

The NHL may well fail in Nashville long term, but the Bills have been a long-term success in Buffalo. They are both small markets, so the issue comes down to money. The Predators aren't making money. The Bills are -- apparently just not enough to satisfy the owner or the NFL.

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