Friday, November 02, 2007

NHL Sentences Rick Tocchet

At the beginning of 2006, Rick Tocchet looked like a very promising assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. When head coach Wayne Gretzky left the team for a few games earlier in the season when his mother Phyllis died, Tocchet took over as Phoenix's head coach for a short period of time. It looked quite likely that whenever Gretzky permanently stepped down as the Phoenix coach, Tocchet would be his replacement. All of this changed with Rick Tocchet's gambling arrest. He was arrested for his part in running an illegal gambling ring in New Jersey along with James Harvey, a New Jersey policeman.

This story was a juicy one for the media. It could be a serious scandal for the NHL. There could have been gambling on (and fixing of) NHL games. There could have been associations with organized crime. Since Wayne Gretzky's wife Janet was one of the gamblers, this could bring down Gretzky himself, who is hockey's most well known figure. Tocchet was immediately convicted in the court of public opinion. This scandal turned out to be not nearly as big as it first appeared. There was no gambling on NHL games. The gambling was only on NFL and NCAA games. This was a group of wealthy individuals who were making large bets on these games. There was no link to organized crime found. James Harvey was found to be the ringleader and was convicted with a five year jail term. Rick Tocchet plead guilty and was given probation. Since the story broke, Rick Tocchet has been indefinitely suspended from the NHL.

Gary Bettman has now met with Tocchet and handed down his ruling. His suspension will last two years (making him eligible to return on February 7th, 2008). He must abstain from gambling in any way and submit himself the NHL/NHLPA doctors to see if he has a gambling disorder. Bettman reserves the right to further discipline should these conditions not be met.

While it was not an intelligent move for Tocchet to be involved in illegal activity, a two year suspension seems more than adequate. The problem is in the court of public opinion. Many people still believe Tocchet gambled on NHL games - despite the fact courts and NHL found this was not true. It will be a black eye in the future if Tocchet is in a high profile situation, such as head coach of a successful Phoenix organization when somebody dredges up these old charges. It won't look good, although that is largely due to public overreactions and a rush to judgment.

Phoenix has kept Tocchet's assistant coaching position vacant and Wayne Gretzky wants him back (it is a common complaint of Gretzky that his loyalty keeps him from hiring the more qualified people for Phoenix Coyote openings). Tocchet may be a competent assistant coach, but many other competent coaches exist. It might have been a smarter move to hire one of them and b ring in their new perspective on the Phoenix situation.

Here is TSN's story on the Tocchet ruling and here is Eric Duhatschek's Globe and Mail article on the story.

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