Sat, Feb 11, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Gretzky cultivates dangerous liaisons

PRO HOCKEY The Great One is seeing his wife, a close associate and others facing serious charges by New Jersey State Police over a sports-betting ring

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE AND AP , NEW YORK AND OTTAWAAP, MONTREAL

Senators goalie Dominik Hasek makes a save against Patrik Stefan of the Thrashers during the second period in Ottawa on Thursday. Atlanta defeated Ottawa 2-1.

PHOTO: AP

When Wayne Gretzky glided across the ice setting NHL scoring records, he always seemed to be skating inside a bubble of bulletproof glass. He hardly ever took a big hit from a goon, and when he did, one of his teammates retaliated for him. You didn't rough up the Great One without paying for it.

But over the past few days, Gretzky, the coach and part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, has been high-sticked harder than he ever was as a player. This time, he and his wife, the actress Janet Jones, are out there together with no enforcers around.

The New Jersey State Police announced an investigation Tuesday into a sports-betting ring said to be connected to organized crime and said to be operated by Rick Tocchet, one of Gretzky's assistants; James Harney, a New Jersey state trooper; and James Ulmer. Jones placed some US$500,000 in bets with the ring in the past six weeks, including US$75,000 on Super Bowl XL, according to the Star-Ledger of Newark.

Meeting with reporters in Phoenix on Tuesday night, Gretzky said he had no knowledge of any gambling allegations until Tocchet called him Monday night.

Gretzky said, "The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved."

Referring to his wife and Tocchet, he said: "Am I concerned for both of them? Sure, there's concern from me. I'm more worried about them than me. I'm kind of like you guys, I'm trying to figure it out too."

But Thursday, the Star-Ledger, citing law-enforcement sources, reported that state wiretaps had caught Gretzky discussing the multimillion-dollar gambling operation, presumably sometime before the ring was dismantled on Monday.

After Thursday night's game, a 5-1 loss at home to Dallas, Gretzky said he did not participate in the gambling ring and would continue to coach the Coyotes. "First and foremost, I've done nothing wrong -- nothing that has anything along the lines of betting," he said.

During the game, Jones released a statement proclaiming Gretzky's innocence. "At no time did I ever place a wager on my husband's behalf," she said. "Other than the occasional horse race, my husband does not bet on any sports."

And sooner or later, when Gretzky is questioned by the NHL special investigator, Robert Cleary, a former US attorney who handled the Unabomber case, or is subpoenaed by a grand jury, he surely will be asked:

What did he know about the gambling ring and when did he know it? Did he ever place any bets with the ring? If he did not, did his wife place bets for him or was she betting her own money? Was he aware of how much she was betting?

And even if some bets were placed on football or basketball, the most important question would be: Did he and his wife place bets on NHL games, particularly any Coyotes games?

Tocchet has denied being involved in the gambling ring, and he was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the NHL on Wednesday by Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman must also deal quickly with Gretzky's status not only with the Coyotes but as the executive director of Team Canada in the Winter Olympics men's hockey tournament.

Gretzky's connection to the investigation, and the implication of his wife, have escalated the impact of the scandal.

Proof of several hockey players' betting only on football and basketball would slightly smudge the NHL's image, even if connected to Tocchet, who had 440 goals and 2,972 penalty minutes in a respected 18-season career with six teams, including the 1992 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Hockey players betting through Tocchet in a gambling ring linked to organized crime would be much more damaging.

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