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Time To Make an Example of Tocchet

Aug 15, 2007 – 1:40 PM
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Greg Wyshynski

Greg Wyshynski %BloggerTitle%

Let's clear the air before we convict Rick Tocchet: This post isn't what you think it is. You think it's going to be some puritanical sermon on the mount about the evils of sports wagering, delivered with Mushnick aplomb by someone getting their morally superior rocks off. In fact, I have 2-to-1 odds in Vegas right now that this is exactly what you'll assume.

Save your ire; I gamble on sports. So do the majority of my friends, using everything from basketball brackets to bookie slips. Stripped of some important supporting facts, what Rick Tocchet and his co-defendants did shouldn't mean jail time; unfortunately, we live in an American killjoy culture that makes Roger Goodell look like Steve Rubell by comparison. I have no issue with fans wagering on the games they watch, and wish that gambling on hockey was slightly less complicated and more exciting than an algebra exam.

While the National Hockey League has to openly crucify wagering with its brothers-in-monopolistic-arms in other sports leagues, the reality is that it doesn't seem all that concerned about it. (Probably because the NHL has, like you and I, seen its ratings in comparison to those of March Madness and the Super Bowl.) I searched the 2005 CBA for "gambling" and found one reference in 472 pages: Exhibit 14, Form of Standard Club Rules, No. 2, which states that "Gambling on any NHL Game is prohibited." Being a club rule, anyone caught wagering on an NHL game faces some serious (place tongue in cheek) punishment, according to that section of the CBA -- a fine on a first offense of $250, a fine for a subsequent offense of less than $500, and having their record cleared at the end of each regular season. What, no Hail Marys?

It's been established that the gambling ring Tocchet, James Harney and James A. Ulmer operated did not include wagering on NHL games, and that NHL players are allowed to (legally) bet on anything but hockey in the eyes of the league. But that shouldn't matter, nor should the sentence Tocchet is expected to receive on Friday in a New Jersey court: The NHL needs to suspend this man indefinitely for what he has done, and could have done, to the integrity of the game.One of my core beliefs about professional sports has always been that the moment a paying customer believes the results of the game they are watching have been predetermined in any way, the business is over. Fold up the tents, mark down the merchandise and call Vince McMahon for advice on how to transition from a sport to sports entertainment. There is an insurmountable difference between a fan illegally wagering on a game and a player, coach or referee doing the same; both can quickly descend into financial ruin, but the latter group can climb out of that hole by using their positions of sports privilege.

That's why David Stern and the NBA broke land-speed records in establishing Tim Donaghy as a solitary rogue element in an otherwise squeaky-clean league. Game fixing ruins the experience for the casual fan; more importantly, it breaks the trust with the gambling fan that the money he's wagering is on a legitimate sporting event and not a glorified game of Three-Card Monte.

As mentioned by Stu Cowen in a well-argued piece about why Tocchet should be banned from the NHL, both an NBA referee and an assistant coach in hockey have their means for potentially fixing a wager, like tipping off bookies about a key injury or personnel change, much like what Donaghy pleaded guilty to on Wednesday. I'd argue that an assistant coach could flat out fix a game if he wanted to, depending on his level of responsibility. If Tocchet, for example, was in charge of line changes, what if there was a "botched" one at a key moment in the third period, causing an odd-man rush the other way? It's not the exact science that a player fixing a game is, but the potential is still there to affect the outcome.

No, Tocchet (and the several still-unnamed NHL players) didn't bet on hockey. There's evidence Donaghy didn't start with basketball either -- breaking NBA rules by wagering hundreds of dollars a hand in Atlantic City card games. As any gambler will admit, it can be a slippery slope; Tocchet just got caught before it was his turn down the mountain side.

He pled guilty in May to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling, a mea culpa that's expected to spare him any time in the real sin bin. He's been on a league-approved "leave of absence" since Feb. 2006 when police broke the case. Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky wants him back on the bench; and while the NHL isn't exactly in the business of saying "no" to Wayne Gretzky, it's time to make an exception -- and an example.

Tocchet should be formally suspended indefinitely, for a minimum of a season. Not only because he dipped his skate into a cesspool he knew could be publicly damaging for the league, but because we're in a post-Donaghy sports landscape in which a professional coach caught operating an illegal gambling ring cannot get off with a sanctioned "leave of absence." I think the NFL's policy against gambling has it right, prohibiting "associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner tending to bring discredit to the NFL." But that's an argument for the next CBA; right now, there needs to be punishment not only for this crime, but for the next crime.

C'mon, isn't that a core principle of the NHL? To suspend as a preventive measure, so the next guy knows he'll get 25 games for taking a baseball swing at Ryan Hollweg or three games for having the nerve to back-check Tomas Kaberle? Give Tocchet at least a year out of the game, and perhaps the next Ricky the Greek will think twice, keep his nose clean and avoid turning into our own little game-fixin' Tim Donahockey...
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