NEW YORK – Text of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s ruling on the reinstatement of Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet:
On Feb. 7, 2006, the office of the New Jersey Attorney General made public details of a four-month investigation into alleged illegal sports bookmaking activities, which investigation was referred to as “Operation Slapshot,” and targeted in addition to a New Jersey State Trooper (James Harney) and a New Jersey businessman (James Ulmer), Associate Coach for the Phoenix Coyotes, Rick Tocchet. Immediately upon learning of the investigation, the National Hockey League retained Robert J. Cleary to conduct a comprehensive investigation regarding Mr. Tocchet’s alleged involvement in the illegal bookmaking activity. Mr. Cleary and his investigative team received a broad mandate in conducting his internal investigation into Mr. Tocchet’s activities and into the facts underlying the allegations against Mr. Tocchet.
On Feb. 8, 2006, I met with Mr. Tocchet and his counsel and granted his request for an indefinite leave of absence from his coaching duties with the Phoenix Coyotes. I granted Mr. Tocchet’s request on the following three specific conditions: (1) Mr. Tocchet was required to immediately, and for the duration of his leave of absence, refrain from any and all contact or communication with all league and club personnel; (2) Mr. Tocchet’s leave of absence could not be ended without my express consent; and (3) I expressly reserved the right to modify the terms of Mr. Tocchet’s leave of absence at any time.
Earlier this year, on May 25, 2007, Mr. Tocchet pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling – third-degree crimes in the state of New Jersey. At the hearing in which Mr. Tocchet entered his guilty plea, he told the court while under oath that he and James Harney were in a partnership to promote gambling and that they shared in the profits and losses of Mr. Harney’s operation. On Aug. 17, 2007, Mr. Tocchet was sentenced to two years probation for the crimes to which he pled guilty.
Following Mr. Tocchet’s sentencing on August 17 of this year, Mr. Cleary and his team were, for the first time, given the opportunity to meet with and interview Mr. Tocchet. Following that meeting and a number of follow-up interviews of various individuals stemming from that meeting, Mr. Cleary was able to finalize his report and deliver it to the League for review. Mr. Cleary’s formal report on his investigation and findings were delivered to me on Monday of this week.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly and I met with Mr. Tocchet and his counsel on Tuesday afternoon in New York to review Mr. Cleary’s report and to discuss both the events giving rise to his being charged and pleading guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling, and his activities during the period of Mr. Tocchet’s leave of absence from the game. Don Maloney, general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes, also was present and offered his views with regard to Mr. Tocchet’s status on behalf of his organization. On the basis of Mr. Cleary’s findings, my own review of investigation work papers and my meeting with Mr. Tocchet, I now am in a position to rule on Mr. Tocchet’s status and eligibility to return to the National Hockey League.
I would be remiss if I did not note at the outset that I am pleased the facts as determined by Mr. Cleary and his team, as well as the manner in which the legal process and subsequent court proceedings played out, do not even approach the magnitude of severity of criminal activity first suggested or implied at the time the New Jersey Attorney General’s investigation was first made public. Contrary to initial reports, the bookmaking activity at issue was not a well-developed, complex criminal operation, and its relationship to hockey and the National Hockey League was, at best, tangential. While we have confirmed that a small group of current and former NHL players occasionally placed bets with James Harney (which, by itself, was not illegal under New Jersey state law), there is no evidence that any of these individuals ever placed a bet on hockey or participated in any other way in the bookmaking operation that ultimately was acknowledged to be illegal. Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone, including Mr. Tocchet, did anything that in any way or at any time compromised the integrity of NHL hockey or any NHL hockey game. Finally, despite persistent innuendos and suggestions regarding the possible involvement of organized crime with the activities in question, none of those innuendos proved to be true. During the course of Mr. Cleary’s investigation, absolutely no evidence was uncovered establishing any connection between the illegal bookmaking activity at issue and organized crime.
While it is clear that criminal activity did in fact take place, and that Mr. Tocchet was involved in this activity, and 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 after the investigation was made public.
Nevertheless, Mr. Tocchet has acknowledged his guilt of criminal behaviour that cannot and will not be tolerated or condoned by the National Hockey League. While the offences he pled to were not nearly as serious as what we first were led to believe transpired, Mr.Tocchet nevertheless acknowledged through his plea and in his meeting with me to having engaged in illegal activities under New Jersey state law. Mr. Tocchet has admitted to me that his actions were inappropriate – even stupid – and evidenced extremely poor judgment, for which he has expressed significant remorse and regret and for which he has apologized.
Mr. Tocchet’s actions and poor judgment giving rise to these charges, and especially during the period in which the legal proceedings were pending and the real facts were being determined, unfairly cast an unfavourable and negative light on our game and some of the great people in our game. Mr. Tocchet’s acknowledged conduct gave rise to a “story” that has lingered for more than a year and a half, and has created an environment which left not only him but the entire National Hockey League vulnerable to embarrassment, to accusations of scandal, to suspicions pertaining to the integrity of NHL competition, and to the possibility of diminished respect in the eyes of the public.
In the last 21 months, Mr. Tocchet has not been able to work in the National Hockey League, and the NHL has not been a part of his daily life in the same way as it had been for the previous 23 years. Mr. Tocchet has a lot of friends in the game, all of whom – virtually without exception – consider him a good person with good moral character. Based on his 21-month absence from the game, Mr. Tocchet and his counsel have asserted that he has already been severely punished for his admitted misconduct, and that no further League imposed punishment is either warranted or appropriate.
While at first blush there may appear to be some merit to that view, I remain concerned as to whether Mr. Tocchet is adequately sensitive to the seriousness of the admitted misconduct, especially in the context of his role as a highly visible and prominent employee in a professional sports league. The bottom line is that when you are fortunate enough to work in the National Hockey League, you are necessarily held to a higher standard of personal conduct than in many other professions – and appropriately so. Moreover, during his 21 months away from the game, Mr. Tocchet did not strictly adhere to the terms of our understanding that he was to have no contact with NHL league or club personnel. Mr. Tocchet has acknowledged that, but nevertheless failed to take any steps to address it either in advance of or after such inappropriate contact. In addition, and almost unbelievably, Mr. Tocchet has continued to gamble during his leave of absence – although not as frequently or in the same manner that resulted in his problems with law enforcement.
There are those who might suggest that Mr. Tocchet should be prohibited from resuming active status in the league for an extremely long and additional period of time – perhaps forever. In my view, those who would make such a suggestion probably are not familiar with all the facts and still are focused on the original headlines.
On balance, I believe that Mr. Tocchet should be eligible again for employment and participation in the NHL, but that such eligibility should not commence prior to Feb. 7, 2008. I am satisfied that the league’s interests in both discouraging and deterring inappropriate and, in this case, criminal behavior, and in sufficiently punishing the same, are adequately served with Mr. Tocchet having been deprived of the privilege of NHL participation for 162 regular season games and two entire calendar years.
Mr. Tocchet’s reinstatement as of Feb. 7, 2008, will be subject to the following conditions:
(1) He may not gamble – legally or illegally – in any manner and without exceptions;
(2) He may not engage in any conduct which may reflect adversely on NHL hockey, the league or any club, or on any league or club personnel; and
(3) He must submit himself for evaluation by the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program Doctors to determine if he suffers from a compulsive gambling addiction and, if so, to undergo such treatment as the professional counsellors may require.
I am reserving the right to further discipline Mr. Tocchet should he fail to strictly abide by any of these conditions.
In closing, I reiterate my strongly held view that employment and participation in the National Hockey League is an honour and a privilege that cannot be taken for granted. 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. Whether you view Mr. Tocchet’s two-year punishment as too light, too severe, or just right, the fact of the matter is that he has paid an extremely high price for conduct which, although perhaps not as bad as originally suggested, was nevertheless highly inappropriate and illegal.