For battered NHL, another black eye

Allegations that a coach is part of an illegal gambling ring won't help pro hockey shed its bare-knuckle reputation.

The rough patch apparently isn't over for the already-battered National Hockey League.

Allegations that a coach who works alongside hockey great Wayne Gretzky is mixed up in a gambling ring - one with ties to organized crime - are almost certainly not going to help the NHL rebuild its fan base after last year's cancelled season.

Worse, the man at the center of the charges, if not a household name, is a fixture of the hockey world, a former NHL player now accused of arranging illegal bets for an as-yet-unspecified number of current or former players. Rick Tocchet, who played 18 years as a tough-guy power forward for the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and other teams, has not commented about the criminal complaint filed against him Tuesday in New Jersey, other than to say, according to wire-service reports, "It's not a hockey-related issue. It's a football thing."

Now an assistant coach to Mr. Gretzky at the Phoenix Coyotes, Mr. Tocchet is one of three to be named in the complaint released Tuesday by New Jersey police. The complaint charges him and a New Jersey state trooper with promoting gambling, money laundering, and conspiracy. Operation Slapshot uncovered a New Jersey-based ring that processed more than 1,000 wagers, exceeding $1.7 million, on professional and college sports, mostly football and basketball, said Col. Joseph Fuentes, superintendent of the state police.

Gretzky is not linked to the ring, authorities say.

For a league trying to move past its bruised-knuckle reputation, the alleged indiscretions and organized-crime connections will sting worse than a slap shot. But some fans and analysts don't think it will change anybody's perception of the game.

"It's embarrassing to the Coyotes, to the NHL, but I don't think it indicates any kind of fundamental rot at the core of professional hockey in North America," says sports commentator Jon Entine, an original member of the Flyers Fan Club in Philadelphia and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who writes on ethics issues.

Sports enthusiasts, coming off the biggest wagering weekend of the year in the Super Bowl, may even be willing to overlook gambling - as long as it doesn't touch the integrity of the game, says sports historian Steve Hardy, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

"The whole psychology of sports and gambling are virtually the same. There's a fantasy world, there's a sense of action, you don't know what the outcome is going to be," he says. "The problem, and the fear for the league, is players who get the idea that you can control the outcome."

So far, no one has said the scheme involved betting on hockey. Still, the alleged involvement of current and former players, and the Mafia imprimatur, makes this a troubling time for the NHL as it is set to begin a three-week break so players can skate in the Olympics.

The case emerges at a time when the Pittsburgh Penguins are considering a partnership with a casino enterprise in order to get a new arena and salvage the team.

"The NHL is really going to be looking" at gambling by players, says Leonard Kotylo of the Society for International Hockey Research in Toronto. "It looks like something that was festering under a rock, so they've got to ... get it out in the open."

If convicted, Tocchet could face jail time. He was expected to travel to New Jersey to answer charges, and to confer with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in New York.

The case puts Gretzky, head coach and part owner of the Coyotes, in a difficult spot. His wife, actress Janet Jones, has been linked to the case in some news reports, though none has specified her role.

Hockey saw a point-shaving scandal in the 1940s, but the first NHL player to get suspended for betting on other sports, Babe Pratt of Toronto and New York, is now in the Hall of Fame.

"The danger is to do what Pete Rose did. Initially he didn't bet on baseball games, but ... it's a slippery slope," says Mr. Kotylo. "As a hockey player, you might have inside information about how other players are performing, so [you] might put some money down on a certainty."

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