NHL under dark cloud
Every sport and every major sports league faces controversy and trouble from time to time.
The NBA had Kobe Bryant, baseball had steroid speculation swirling all last summer, the NFL had Ray Lewis on trial and even the CFL had to face a complicated, embarrassing problem with an HIV-infected player.
But no league has had to bear the brunt of the seemingly relentless series of unique, damaging and sensational storms that the NHL has had to face over the past several years.
There was the car crash that killed Atlanta Thrashers forward Dan Snyder with burgeoning star Dany Heatley at the wheel in the fall of 2003, then Todd Bertuzzi’s unique piece of mayhem, then the stunning, pathetic story of St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton trying to have his agent murdered.
A lockout wrecked the entire 2004-05 season and left the shattered league without a Stanley Cup champion. Of late, Bryan Berard became the most significant player in league history to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Now comes potentially the biggest storm of all.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with Phoenix assistant coach Rick Tocchet last night in New York to begin the process of unravelling the startling accusations made by New Jersey law enforcement officials against the former NHL star. Tocchet was granted an indefinite leave of absence.
There is, as of today, no proof that Tocchet, the accused “money man” in an alleged gambling ring based in New Jersey, organized bets on NHL hockey, or received bets from NHL players or executives on NHL games.
But police are investigating precisely those specific possibilities, scenarios now indelibly embedded in the public’s mind.
Could the fix be in? Could NHL players be that reckless, that stupid? Could match-fixing scandals like those that have hit European soccer emerge here?
Moreover, there are sketchy suggestions of mob involvement in the alleged operations funded by Tocchet, and that too has to scare the hell out of Bettman’s office.
That’s why his lieutenant, Bill Daly, bolted back to New York from Nevada on Tuesday night. That’s why Bettman put his foot down and quite rightly made it clear Tocchet could not be behind the Coyotes bench for a game Tuesday night.
Tocchet has denied any wrongdoing, but the charges are enormous and it will be six weeks before indictments are possibly handed down by a grand jury, thereby creating a dark, ominous cloud far greater than that produced by criminal charges against Bertuzzi for his attack on Steve Moore.
A cloud that could even blemish the spic-and-span reputation of Wayne Gretzky, and one that could produce multiple suspensions, some potentially of Pete Rose-like duration.
This, of course, at a time when the NHL desperately wants the sports world to be looking towards its showcase event in Turin, not watching cops in full dress uniforms speaking into microphones describing money laundering operations.
What’s next, Bettman might ask? Locusts? Plagues? A return of Cooper-alls? Another owner with a taste for rare coins?
The standard NHL response to ugly controversy, that (insert player/owner/manager’s name here) was involved in an isolated incident that does not reflect the game or the industry, will be of no use here if this mess mushrooms. Indeed, police say others are already involved, including players, owners and members of management, not to mention Mrs. Janet Gretzky.
That leaves Bettman with little choice but to be proactive, to try to get ahead of this sordid business.
He’s already shown signals of that strategy by vetoing Gretzky’s absurd notion that Tocchet be allowed to continue coaching and by hiring a high-profile lawyer — a man who prosecuted the Unabomber — to conduct the league’s own investigation.
But clearly, Bettman also needs to come out and vigorously urge players to come forward, rather than be found out over the course of time, and to articulate a clear, forceful, no-nonsense NHL policy.
Right now, the NHL is a league that says it frowns on gambling, but then has its managers meeting in Vegas and allows its teams to have business relationships with gambling operations.
NHL players were once banned for even consorting with gamblers, but now the league seems to take a no-tolerance stand only against players betting on NHL games.
Is everything else okay? What exactly is the league’s gambling policy? What can those who contravene that policy anticipate as punishment?
Bettman has meted out some of the harshest suspensions in the history of the league, but at other times has preferred damage control and denial.
None of Heatley, Danton nor Berard has faced NHL censure for their choices. With respect to “Operation Slap Shot,” however, Bettman can’t sit back.