Risky Business

Will the NHL stick with its blasé attitude toward gambling now that a bookmaking scandal has touched the life of Wayne Gretzky?
February 20, 2006

The face ofhockey was visibly tired. Wayne Gretzky's eyes welled last Thursday as heannounced, after his Phoenix Coyotes' 5-1 capitulation to Dallas, that hewasn't going anywhere--except to the Olympics as Team Canada's executivedirector--and said that he had not bet on sporting events. "Didn'thappen," he said, hands thrust into the pockets of his black suit."It's not going to happen."

From the outside,at least, Wayne's world always had appeared to be a well-ordered place ofhumility and probity. But last week it collided with a bizarre netherworldwhose axis was a big-money betting ring that New Jersey authorities allege wasfinanced by Gretzky's close friend and Coyotes associate coach, Rick Tocchet,who has been charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy(box, page 29).

The criminalinvestigation, known as Operation Slap Shot, has a wide-ranging dramatispersonae. There's Tocchet's alleged partner, James Harney, the New Jersey statetrooper who managed to squirrel away $250,000 worth of Rolex watches and nineplasma-screen televisions on a salary of $75,000. There's thePhiladelphia-based Bruno-Scarfo crime family, which may have had its hands inthe operation. There are the half dozen or so unidentified current and formerNHL players who allegedly wagered through Tocchet, and Phoenix G.M. MikeBarnett, who allegedly placed a $300 Super Bowl bet with the coach. And,ominously, there is actress Janet Jones, Gretzky's wife. According to reports,she bet more than $100,000 in a recent six-week period, including $75,000 onthe Super Bowl--$5,000 of which was laid on the coin toss. To rework an oldjoke, Gretzky went to a hockey game and Season 6 of The Sopranos broke out.

But what didGretzky know, and when did he know it? The Associated Press has reported thaton Feb. 6--the same day Tocchet learned he was under investigation--Gretzky andTocchet were overheard on a police wiretap discussing how to minimize thefallout for Jones, whom Gretzky married in 1988 and with whom he has fivechildren. That revelation does not contradict Gretzky's claims that he wasignorant of his wife's gambling until the police knocked on his door in Phoenixon Feb. 6 and asked to speak to Jones (who was at the family's Thousand Oaks,Calif., home). Last Thursday, Jones, who has not been charged, released astatement in which she said nothing about her own gambling habits butmaintained that she never bet on her husband's behalf. Whatever went on in theGretzkys' dual households, the proximity of the game's greatest player to abetting ring that police say generated $1.7 million in 1,000 bets over a recent40-day period is troubling, especially for a league that continues to maintaina breezy gambling culture despite a number of embarrassing situations in recentyears.

In 2003 reportssurfaced that Czech star Jaromir Jagr had run up nearly $500,000 in debt in anonline casino. Jeremy Roenick's name popped up in a 2004 FBI investigationafter he paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Florida-based tout service;Roenick also reportedly left tickets to a game for one of the handicappers.(Neither player was sanctioned by the league.) In 2004 NHL officials revealedthat director of officiating Andy van Hellemond had asked referees for loans,in part to cover horse racing debts. Van Hellemond resigned.

Betting on NHLgames is proscribed by the league--there is no evidence the Tocchet-Harney ringtook hockey action from its NHL clientele--but gambling on other sports hasbeen greeted with a furrowed brow, an occasional internal investigation or ashrug. (Betting in the NHL is "like [what] 50 percent of American societydoes, for lower amounts," one Olympic hockey player wrote in an e-mail toSI.) The Canadiens have promotional ties with Casino de Montréal, and thePenguins want to finance a new arena with funding from a casino company that isseeking a license to operate slot machines in Pittsburgh.

But is the NHLmore lax about gambling than other leagues? In an e-mail to SI, NHL deputycommissioner Bill Daly pointed out that his charter prohibits conduct"dishonorable, prejudicial to or against the welfare of the League or thegame of hockey"--and asks "is it really any different than the sportsleagues' standard of conduct?" The answer: Yes. There is less ambiguity inthe NFL rules, which outlaw "associating with gamblers or with gamblingactivities in a manner tending to bring discredit" to the league.

The NFLvigilantly enforces those rules. In 2004, when Steelers running back JeromeBettis wanted to invest in a proposed racetrack-casino in Pittsburgh, the NFLheld up the deal for a month until it was satisfied that he would be insulatedfrom the gambling operation. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is so twitchyabout gambling that the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra received a year of probationfrom the commissioner in 1991 after he admitted to losing $78,000 in pokergames and golf bets, even though he wasn't charged with a crime.

Daly told SI thatthe NHL might modify its rules at the end of its own investigation into thealleged Tocchet ring. The league's probe is being conducted by lawyer RobertCleary, a former federal prosecutor who from 1996 to '98 headed the caseagainst the Unabomber. "Mr. Cleary has full and unfettered authority totake this investigation wherever it needs to go to find all the relevantfacts," Daly wrote. "No NHL or Club personnel are off-limits tohim."

That of coursewould include Gretzky, who was scheduled to land in Turin--with his wife--onTuesday. He should be arriving as a hero, the leader of the defending Olympichockey champion, an ambassador for his sport. Instead he will travel in theshadow of Operation Slap Shot and face questions about how the man who couldsee so much on the ice managed to miss so much at home and in the office. Butthe investigation is not enough. The league must start overhauling its rulesabout gambling, using the other major sports as models. Otherwise, the only"under" anyone will bet is where the NHL's image is going.

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Kwan's departure spells trouble for ratings, but ithas an upside --PASSING THE TORCH, PAGE 30