Wayne Gretzky was dragged into it, along with his actress-wife Janet Jones, on the eve of the Turin Olympics. But it was settled with little fanfare Friday as the former player, Rick Tocchet, pleaded guilty to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling in a plea deal that may spare him jail time.
The case looked much milder at the end than it did 15 months ago, when it appeared it might inflict a serious blow to a sport that was struggling to regain fans after a season-long lockout the year before.
But the worst suspicions were not substantiated. There didn’t seem to be mob ties or betting on hockey. No other hockey figures are being charged or will have to testify in a criminal trial.
“I’m sure everyone recalls the manner in which the case was initially announced and described,” said Kevin Marino, the defence lawyer for Tocchet. “I think (Friday’s) proceeding speaks for itself.”
It was two days after the 2006 Super Bowl when State Police Col. Rick Fuentes announced the charges against Tocchet, Trooper James Harney and a third man, James Ulmer.
Fuentes said that during a 40-day stretch that had just ended, they had handled bets totalling US$1.7 million from a list of gamblers that included a movie star and other hockey figures.
Quickly, the prospect developed of a trial featuring a cavalcade of hockey players as witnesses. Even Gretzky, hockey’s greatest player and a friend of Tocchet’s, was caught on an investigative wiretap discussing how his wife could avoid being implicated.
It turned out Jones didn’t have much to worry about. Authorities didn’t charge her, or any other bettors, because placing bets – even with a bookmaker – is not illegal in New Jersey.
While Tocchet was the big name in the case, it became clear in coming months that the corrupt state trooper was the main target for law enforcement.
Even after Tocchet pleaded guilty on Friday, state Criminal Justice Director Gregory A. Paw’s most damning words were about Harney, who Paw said took bets while sitting in his patrol car watching traffic.
Harney agreed to help prosecutors in a deal that could get him up to seven years in prison.
Ulmer, who had a lesser role in the bookmaking operation, pleaded guilty later last year. His sentence will be up to a judge, but authorities said they would ask for it to be between six months and a year in jail.
Tocchet, who spent 2,970 minutes – or the equivalent of more than two days – in the penalty box during his 22-year NHL career, may not serve any jail time at all.
Under state law, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. But, as his lawyer emphasized, the third-degree crimes he pleaded guilty to usually do not result in incarceration for people like Tocchet who have had no other brushes with the law.
Authorities would not say whether they would request jail time when he is sentenced on Aug. 17.
In a court proceeding that lasted only a few minutes on Friday, Tocchet did not speak except to answer yes or no to questions.
When asked by Marino if he ever bet on professional hockey, Tocchet said “No.”
Later, outside the courthouse, Marino said that by calling the case “Operation Slapshot,” the state police were suggesting it involved betting on hockey.
“(Friday’s) proceeding makes clear this was not an organized crime hockey ring because there was no betting of any kind on professional hockey,” Marino said.
A remaining question in the case is what it means for Tocchet’s hockey future.
He has been on indefinite leave from his job as Gretzky’s top assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes since he was charged.
Neither Coyotes nor NHL officials have decided whether to allow a man who played in 1,144 regular-season games, scoring 440 goals and 952 points and who in 145 playoff games scored 52 goals and 112 points, to return.
In an official statement released Friday afternoon, the club said it will await completion of the NHL’s investigation and support the decision on Tocchet’s status.
The NHL is still looking into the case, and spokesman Frank Brown said it’s not clear when that investigation will be completed.