The unpopular theory that the current NHL gambling scandal is actually beneficial for a league desperate for publicity is injudicious at best. At worst, it's not just that such an idea shows a complete lack of discernment. Let's just say I wouldn't want these people becoming conductors, lest they figure a train wreck would provide some much-needed publicity for Amtrak.
Let's make this clear. This is bad. And what's worse is that it is seemingly becoming worse by the moment.
The Newark Star Ledger -- which is to this story thus far what the San Francisco Chronicle was to the BALCO scandal -- reported this morning that Wayne Gretzky had previously discussed the multimillion-dollar gambling operation allegedly run by his Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet and former bartender friend of Tocchet -- New Jersey state trooper James Harney -- before it was shut down Monday.
Law enforcement officers said that through wire taps, they reportedly learned that The Great One knew about the ring, and are now investigating whether he placed any bets through his wife, Janet Jones. Yeah, I'm sure they're high-fiving each other in the NHL offices today because they've got America finally talking about their game.
This isn't a scandal built around the moral obligations of gambling, which we can argue about all week long and be hypocritical all the while with our staunch putdowns of the culture's seediness. But there's a big difference between tossing five bucks into a Super Bowl squares pool among friends ($20 winner, thank you) and running a multi-million dollar ring with possible ties to the New Jersey mob.
I mean, it doesn't take a genius, right?
The National Post of Canada today reported the story of Philadelphia crime boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, who is doing 14 years hard time in a Texas maximum security prison: "Merlino was a young celebrity guy, you know, if Gotti is GQ, Joey is Maxim, they were that same kind of, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a gangster-celebrity-man about town,'" a Philadelphia Inquirer crime reporter told Joe O'Connor.
This week, Merlino's name is being associated with Tocchet's, as the New Jersey Police's "Operation Slap Slot" (love it) investigates a possible link between Tocchet and Skinny Joey's old "family", the Bruno-Scarfo mafia clan. (When names like "Bruno-Scarfo mafia clan" come up, you can bet NHL promotion directors are getting wound up with the possibilities.)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman granted Tocchet an indefinite leave yesterday (translate: likely permanent), and the assistant coach is preparing to be arraigned in the next two weeks. Gretzky could be also subpoenaed to testify before a New Jersey grand jury.
This news is not going over well in Canada, as you can imagine, where in a matter of days national hero Gretzky is due to lead Team Canada to almost assured golden glory at the Olympics in Turin. Some wonder whether the Phoenix Coyotes coach should stay home altogether when the Olympic break commences this weekend. The only Canadian who has to be happy about this right now is Todd Bertuzzi, who is going to fly under the radar next week rather than have to relive his ugly incident with Steve Moore.
"He should stay home, not as a favour to the Canadian Olympic team, but to protect it," writes the Calgary Sun's Steve Simmons. "Should Gretzky arrive as planned early next week in his role as executive director of Team Canada, he will not simply be transporting his legendary self from one hockey universe to another, he will be transporting a scandal from one continent to another. He will be spreading a hockey virus."
If today's Star-Ledger report is true, that might actually be the case. Remember, when news of this ring first surfaced on Tuesday, the implication was that up to a dozen players and an owner were involved as well. Bruin Travis Green's name has been mentioned, as has Mass. native Jeremy Roenick (neither commented on the allegations yesterday), while Gretzky coaches -- and owns -- the Phoenix Coyotes.
"Can't you feel the chill, Canada?" asks Cam Cole in the Montreal Gazette. "We wait for the names to come spilling out, as they surely will in the days ahead, wondering if the ones who've had brushes with gambling in the past -- Jaromir Jagr, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick -- will be among them. But most of all, we wonder if the unthinkable could be true: if arguably the greatest hockey player of all could have slipped some money to his wife to add to her own wagers on games."
After Jones (who will reportedly make a statement some time today) lost a reported $500,000 in gambling debts (according to the Star-Ledger), the question as to whether he knew is almost banal. The major uncertainly lay now in how much he knew, and if he participated. And the NHL cannot like which way the weathervane is pointing right now.
This certainly is the biggest betting scandal to hit professional sports since Pete Rose, the most disturbing blow to a game's image since steroids in baseball. But we're not here to talk about the past. On the eve of having its players celebrated on the world stage in Italy, the NHL now has to deal with a major headache of epic proportions. It's one that's not likely to drown the game but will nevertheless give it a major hit at a time when it was anticipating a rebound, thanks to Turin, wide ice and speedy play, which exhibit the game in its best environment.
The NHL seems to always benefit from the Olympic popularity one way or another (even if the American players do like to trash hotel rooms), but in 2006, it's going to be nothing more than a distraction to simmering and serious allegations that have apparently just scratched the surface.