Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tocchet to the docket!

The story had all but faded from the headlines by the second week of the regular season in October, the bombshell of last year but a footnote to the "New" NHL's rebirth and a promise of good times are back stories.

But, justice has finally travelled her winding road it seems and Rick Tocchet will finally get a day in court to answer questions about Operation Slapshot, a New Jersey investigation into an illegal gambling ring, a story that when it broke shook the establishment of the NHL, dragging the Gretkzy family ring into the headlines and sending would be Elliot Ness's off in search of more names, more money and maybe a smoking betting slip.

The expectation for tomorrow seems to boil down to one of two things happening in Superior Court Judge Thomas S. Smith's court room on Friday. Tocchet will plead guilty having reached a plea agreement with the state's Attorney General department, or the courts will throw out all charges, removing the cloud over Tocchet's life and allowing him to find a way to return to hockey.

Fifteen months have gone by since the hockey scandal broke out, a few of the principles in it have already gone to jail, but the biggest name on the accused side has yet to speak. Friday perhaps that will change and Operation slapshot will be examined in depth, providing some details as to whether the Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach and friend of the Gretzky family is now in the clear, in further trouble or set to atone for his sins.

Tocchet getting his day in court
From Friday's Globe and Mail
May 24, 2007

Fifteen months after he was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy, National Hockey League assistant coach Rick Tocchet will finally appear in a New Jersey courtroom.

The question is: What will happen to him?

The state Attorney General's Office announced Thursday that Tocchet is due in court Friday on charges stemming from Operation Slapshot, the code name for the police investigation into an illegal gambling ring in which two of its principals, including a New Jersey police officer, pleaded guilty.

But beyond saying Tocchet was scheduled to appear before Superior Court Judge Thomas S. Smith, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office had nothing to add. Neither did Tocchet's lawyer, Kevin Marino.

That left the door open to speculation, which has been rampant since Tocchet was charged and Janet Gretzky's name surfaced for allegedly betting $500,000 (all currency U.S.) during the course of the investigation.

The strongest suggestion Thursday was that Tocchet's unexpected court appearance meant he would either be entering a guilty plea or else the charges against would be dropped. These possibilities were confirmed by a source who said that whatever happened in court would "be over quick." That could indicate an agreement has been reached with New Jersey prosecutors.

The other men charged in the gambling ring, former state trooper James Harney and businessman James Ulmer, pleaded guilty last year and agreed to help prosecutors in their case against Tocchet. Harney provided a full account of how the gambling ring worked and said he and Tocchet were equal partners.

According to Harney, Tocchet brought in six bettors and shared revenue with him. Sometimes Tocchet would cover losses, Harney said. The gambling ring operated for roughly five years and handled $1.7-million in football wagering during a 40-day span from 2005 to 2006.
Harney, who would occasionally take bets while patrolling the New Jersey Turnpike, has yet to be sentenced. He could face seven years in prison. Prosecutors are asking Ulmer be jailed for less than a year.

Tocchet, 42, has been on leave from his job as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes. When the leave was granted at Tocchet's request, the NHL implemented several conditions, one of which stated Tocchet could not return to work until commissioner Gary Bettman gave his consent.

The NHL also hired a lawyer, Robert Cleary, best known for prosecuting Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, to determine if any there was any betting on hockey games. Cleary's investigation did not produce any evidence the gambling ring bet on NHL games.

NHL executive vice-president Bill Daly was contacted Thursday but declined to comment. Tocchet has said nothing publicly since February of 2006 when he told reporters, "It's not a hockey-related issue; it's a football thing. And at this time I can't comment any further."

Four months after making that statement, attorneys for Tocchet and Gretzky filed notices in New Jersey that they intend to sue the state for $50-million each for defamation. The parties named in the suit included the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety, the state police and the head of the state police public information office, which allegedly leaked information gleaned from wiretaps to the media.

In this month's edition of Chatelaine magazine, Gretzky said the media coverage of the allegations were unfair to her and her husband, Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes head coach.

"That was a little hurtful because it was like, 'Why? What have we ever done to you?' " Janet said.

Initially, Marino called the allegations against his client as "categorically false and irresponsible." He promised that "Mr. Tocchet will fight the false charges with the same grit and resolve he displayed during his illustrious career."

Tocchet spent 19 seasons in the NHL with six teams. He scored 440 goals and had 2,972 minutes in penalties.

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