The NHL looked to close the door on the Rick Tocchet betting scandal Thursday, insisting that the integrity of the game has not been harmed.
But it is clear that Tocchet’s gambling and willingness to help others wager have left a mark, tarnishing the league and casting some of its inhabitants – perhaps unfairly – in an unflattering light.
Hired by the league to lead an internal investigation, former Unabomber prosecutor Robert Cleary interviewed 90 people to find out the extent of Tocchet’s taint. While some were directly or indirectly involved in the betting allegations, most were former teammates and club officials quizzed as to Tocchet’s modus operandi.
The list of former associates includes Sean Burke, Bob Clark, Donald Brashear, Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, Ken Hitchcock, Reggie Lemelin, John LeClair, Eric Lindros, Mark Recchi and Keith Tkachuk.
Tocchet comes across as a gambler but no criminal mastermind. He placed bets with James Harney and referred a “small number of individuals” (said to be NHL players and Janet Jones Gretzky) to the then-New Jersey state trooper so they could bet themselves.
Tocchet said he started betting with Harney in 2000 or 2001, saying the fact he was in law enforcement provided “a sense of safety.” The report says Tocchet “maintained a financial interest in the betting activity” of those he referred to Harney.
None of the bets were on hockey, the report says.
“We concluded that Tocchet’s illegal bookmaking activity was isolated in scope and at no point in time affected the integrity of NHL games,” Cleary states.
Still, damage has been done for a league struggling to make headlines for the right reasons south of the border.
“Mr. Tocchet’s actions and poor judgment giving rise to these charges … unfairly cast an unfavourable and negative light on our game and some of the great people in our game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said in his statement Thursday.
“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.”
Frustration seems to bubble below the surface of Bettman’s statement: frustration that Tocchet could have been so stupid, frustration at New Jersey authorities’ initial wide-ranging and damning claims, frustration that Tocchet essentially ignored the NHL’s wishes while on leave of absence by staying in contact with those in the league and by taking part in the World Series of Poker.
Mainly it’s frustration that his league has been needlessly dragged through the mud, thanks to Tocchet.
The Cleary report found no evidence of betting on hockey by NHL personnel and no ties between Tocchet’s activity and organized crime.
It did find “a small group of current and former NHL players” placed bets, although none on hockey.
The report also said:
-Then Coyotes GM Michael Barnett placed a $1,000 bet on the 2006 Super Bowl through Tocchet, believing Tocchet had a sports betting connection in Las Vegas.
-Coyotes coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky knew Tocchet gambled as a hobby and enjoyed betting on football. Gretzky also knew his wife Janet had placed bets on the 2006 Super Bowl through Tocchet. “We found no evidence to suggest that (Wayne) Gretzky has ever placed sports bets, either through Tocchet, or otherwise.”
-Janet Jones Gretzky told investigators she bet on the 2006 NFL playoffs and Super Bowl with Tocchet’s assistance. She said she would discuss bets with Tocchet and he would then place them with Harney. The report said she did not believe Tocchet placed bets for other individuals.
-Coyotes players and past teammates were unaware that Tocchet was involved in bookmaking. “There was knowledge among these individuals that Tocchet sometimes gambled on football and basketball, but never hockey.”
Harney got five years in jail, Tocchet two years probation.
Tocchet can return to the league on Feb. 7, providing he meets certain conditions. It’s clear it will take a lot longer to win Bettman over, even if he adheres to the required guidelines.
“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,” Bettman said.