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Stevens downplays scope of NHL in ring

When the story broke about an investigation into allegations of a gambling ring involving former Bruin Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens was stunned. When the shock wore off, Stevens said he got mad.

''This involves five, six guys, total, that's it," said Stevens, who played for Boston briefly and is now a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins. ''All hockey guys. But when you hear it all day on the radio, you'd swear it was 100 guys. Ridiculous. And these are all friends, all of them know each other."

The scandal, which also links Wayne Gretzky's wife -- actress Janet Jones -- to heavy betting, has prompted an internal investigation by the National Hockey League with commissioner Gary Bettman entrusting the job to former US attorney Robert Cleary, who prosecuted Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.

According to numerous reports, New Jersey law enforcement officials believe the ring has been operating since 2001 and that it was run by New Jersey state trooper James E. Harney, Tocchet, and James Ulmer, a resident of Swedesboro, N.J. Before his employment in law enforcement, Harney was a bartender at a Holiday Inn located near the Spectrum when Tocchet was playing in Philadelphia and the two became friends.

All three are scheduled to be arraigned in Superior Court in Mount Holly, N.J., Feb. 21 on charges of promoting gambling, conspiracy, and money laundering. Bruins center Travis Green, who has competed in professional poker tournaments, also has been linked to the probe.

Tocchet played 67 games for the Bruins in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons, scoring 32 goals and notching 22 assists. He came to Boston from the Kings Jan. 25, 1996, in exchange for Stevens, and left March 1, 1997, along with Adam Oates and Bill Ranford in exchange for Jason Allison, Anson Carter, and Jim Carey.

Tocchet was mainly known as a scrapper early in his career, but developed his game enough to become a four-time All-Star, and he was generally considered a team leader.

Some of the published reports discount what Stevens says. According to various sources, including foxsports.com, part of one charge against Tocchet is that in the 39 days leading up to the 2006 Super Bowl, he received 594 bets totaling more than $1 million.

Stevens worries his friend is permanently tainted. For example, according to Newsday, Tocchet had been considered to replace Steve Stirling as coach of the New York Islanders when Mike Milbury was the general manager. Instead, owner Charles Wang fired Stirling and Milbury, who will step down when a successor is found. Tocchet, now on a leave of absence from his role as associate coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, likely never will be able to return to that position or any like it.

''Hey, I know it's wrong, you're not supposed to bet," said Stevens. ''And it's not something anyone would want to talk about, but at the same time, it's not mob-related or any of that stuff. It's just a few friends betting, period. I know for a fact that Gretzky has never gambled. I know that's the truth.

''And I also know Rick Tocchet in not involved in organized crime. He's one of my friends. I talk to him all the time and his mind is boggled by this. He's upset and eventually he'll have his say. There are a lot more people doing worse stuff than this, and again, I know you're not supposed to gamble, OK? But all this is is Harney taking bets from five, six people and they all knew each other. That's pretty small in my book. What's the harm here?"

To his knowledge, Stevens said it was bets on football games and some college basketball games but never hockey.

''That's it," he said. ''Then you hear on the radio and watch the TV and they're linking [Tocchet] to some South Jersey mob. He doesn't have a clue about that. He's not involved, he was just calling in bets. It's probably bad, but it's not half as bad as people are making it out to be. Hey, you can call the islands and that makes it legal because it's offshore. It's ridiculous. That's my own opinion."

He said the scrutiny of Gretzky, also a friend of Stevens, is patently unfair.

''It's got a life of its own now, I guess," he said. ''Gretz never did anything. That's how he is. He always has kept himself away from things. He didn't know what [his wife] was doing. Whenever anything would get sticky, he was never around, that's the way he is. That's why he has the reputation he has and when he talks, there is no lying there.

''Hey, it's hard when someone is all over your friend [Tocchet]. It's the organized crime thing that got me -- it's wrong. It will all come out in the wash. And that part about them betting on hockey, that's [bull]. There isn't the slightest possibility of any hockey bets being there. No one was betting hockey. None of them."

Stevens has had his own trouble in the past; he was charged with possession of crack cocaine and soliciting a prostitute in January 2000 but had his charge reduced to felony drug possession and completed the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program.

As for Jones, who reportedly bet amounts totaling six figures, including a $75,000 bet on the Super Bowl, she defended her husband although she has yet to address her own involvement. She attempted to vindicate Gretzky, saying he was never involved. The Coyotes issued a statement last week from Jones that read, ''At no time did I ever place a wager on my husband's behalf, period. Other than the occasional horse race, my husband does not bet on any sports."

Jones could be called as a witness in a grand jury probe.

Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett, formerly Gretzky's longtime agent who reportedly bet on the Super Bowl through Tocchet, issued a statement after meeting with New Jersey investigators.

''They informed me that my conduct has in no way violated either federal or state laws," said Barnett.

According to the Bergen Record, Harney, 40, used up to five cellphones to take bets and the newspaper said investigators believe he has an association with the Bruno-Scarfo crime family.

It's too early to assess the impact this will have on the NHL, which is still attempting to right itself after a yearlong labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 season, but count on it overcorrecting. That means it will no doubt call into question the situation in Pittsburgh, where an independent local group is attempting to help Penguins partner Isle of Capri get a Pittsburgh slots license with revenue to finance a new arena.

Kevin Paul Dupont of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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