NEW YORK - Rick Tocchet is returning to the NHL, but will have to wait until at least February.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has reinstated the Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach effective Feb. 7. That takes Tocchet two years from when he was placed on a leave of absence following accusations he ran a U.S. gambling ring.
Since the betting ring, in which Tocchet partnered with a New Jersey state trooper and another man, became public in February 2006, the former star forward has been on an indefinite leave of absence that was granted by Bettman.
Tocchet needed clearance from the commissioner to get back into the league and hoped for instant reinstatement upon meeting with Bettman on Tuesday along with lawyers and Coyotes general manager Don Maloney.
That didn't happen.
"I am guessing they are disappointed," Bettman said. "While they may not agree with it, they understood why I was doing what I was doing."
Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky was linked to the probe initially, but was cleared of any wrongdoing. Investigations conducted by law enforcement in New Jersey and by former prosecutor Robert Cleary, hired by the NHL, revealed that Tocchet placed bets on behalf of Janet Jones Gretzky, the wife of the Hockey Hall of Famer.
Now Wayne Gretzky, also the Coyotes' managing partner, is eagerly anticipating Tocchet's return.
"We respect the commissioner's decision and are relieved that this situation is behind us," Gretzky said in a statement. "We will welcome Rick Tocchet back on Feb. 7, 2008."
That's only if Tocchet meets new demands placed on him Thursday by Bettman.
Tocchet, who could've received up to five years in state prison, has already violated terms of the leave granted by Bettman by having contact with league personnel during the time he was away from the game.
The commissioner called it "inexplicable" that Tocchet engaged in legal betting even after the ring was exposed.
"I remain concerned as to whether Mr. Tocchet is adequately sensitive to the seriousness of the admitted misconduct, especially in his role as a highly visible and prominent employee in a professional sports league," Bettman said.
Tocchet may no longer gamble legally or illegally and is prohibited from taking part in any activity that would reflect negatively on the NHL. He also must submit to evaluation by doctors connected with the NHL's substance abuse and behavioural program to determine if he has a compulsive gambling problem.
There were approximately 40 instances in which Tocchet had prohibited contact with NHL-connected people, but those were determined to be of a personal nature and not regarding his case. Bettman said that was a factor in deciding to push the ban from the 21 months already served to a full two years.
"Employment and participation in the National Hockey League is an honour and privilege that can not be taken for granted," Bettman said. "Those in our game who engage in conduct detrimental to the game or its good reputation will be held strictly accountable for their decisions to engage in such conduct.
"He has paid an extremely high price for his conduct, which although perhaps not as bad as originally suggested, was nevertheless highly inappropriate and illegal."
An extensive investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor Robert Cleary, who was hired by the NHL after Tocchet was charged in February 2006, found that Tocchet was involved in the ring and shared in profits and losses, but not equally with his partners.
In announcing his report, submitted to the NHL for review Monday, Cleary said Thursday there was no evidence of betting on hockey by a player or any member of the NHL community; there was no compromise of the integrity of league games, and no evidence that the ring was connected to any organized crime activity as had been suggested in initial reports.
"It was not a well-developed, complex criminal operation, and its relationship to hockey and the National Hockey League was at best tangential," Bettman said. "While I never have and never will attempt to minimize the severity of these activities, the fact is that the reality of this case never lived up to the massive amount of hype and speculation circulating in the initial days."
This scandal became one of the biggest stories in hockey when the 43-year-old Tocchet was charged because authorities said several of the bettors were people connected to the game.