Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gary Bettman a tough choice but the right decision

Over the last few months National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell and National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern have both been forced to deal with significant tests of their leadership. Goodell had to deal with the fallout from the dog fighting indictments against Michael Vick; Stern former NBA official Tim Donaghy’s gambling conviction. Senator Mitchell’s report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball will place MLB commissioner Bud Selig under the microscope in the not too distant future. But last week Gary Bettman had his own “issues” to deal with.

For National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, the lead up to, and the start of the NHL season haven’t been filled with the challenges his peers have had to deal with (that is good for the NHL).

That said, Bettman did have to deal with former NHL’er Rick Tocchet’s future. While Tocchet has long retired as a hockey player he had served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes before he was forced to step away from the game nearly two years ago. Tocchet was indicted on charges he had been an active participant in illegal sports betting activities (bookmaking activities, which investigation referred to as “Operation Slapshot,”) and was targeted in addition to a New Jersey State Trooper (James Harney) and a New Jersey businessman (James Ulmer).

On May 25, 2007, Tocchet pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling -- third-degree crimes in the state of New Jersey. At the hearing in which Tocchet entered his guilty plea, he told the court while under oath that he and James Harney were in a partnership to promote gambling and that they shared in the profits and losses of Mr. Harney’s operation. On August 17, 2007, Tocchet was sentenced to two years probation for the crimes to which he pled guilty.

The question Bettman was forced to deal with was should he give Rick Tocchet a second chance? Or is gambling when it comes to professional athletes in any form so heinous a crime that the NHL bar Tocchet from hockey for life?

After all Major League Baseball not only prevented MLB’s hit king Pete Rose from any association with organized baseball, but Pete Rose, the greatest hitter in baseball history isn’t eligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame for betting on baseball-- long considered the Cardinal Sin when it comes to baseball. Two weeks ago, Stern announced the NBA’s long standing gambling policy that prevented officials from even entering casinos was being changed. The NBA will now allow their officials to ‘enjoy’ casinos but needless to say will never allow their referees to bet on basketball games. So the question Bettman had to deal with, should Rick Tocchet be allowed to once again coach in the National Hockey League?

Bettman and the NHL were very proactive from the day the Newark Star Ledger broke the story on “Operation Slapshot”. Bettman met with Tocchet on February 8, 2006 and the two agreed Tocchet would take an “indefinite leave of absence from his coaching duties with the Phoenix Coyotes.” According to Bettman he placed three conditions on Tocchet at the time: “(1) Mr. Tocchet was required to immediately, and for the duration of his leave of absence, refrain from any and all contact or communication with all League and Club personnel; (2) Mr. Tocchet’s leave of absence could not be ended without my express consent; and (3) I expressly reserved the right to modify the terms of Mr. Tocchet’s leave of absence at any time.” It is ‘interesting’ to say the least, that the three rules Bettman enforced on Tocchet didn’t suggest, prevent or in anyway stop Tocchet from participating in any forum of gambling.

In determining Tocchet’s fate, Bettman and the National Hockey League retained Robert J. Cleary to conduct a comprehensive investigation regarding Mr. Tocchet’s alleged involvement in the illegal bookmaking activity.

According to Bettman: “Mr. Cleary and his investigative team received a broad mandate in conducting his internal investigation into Mr. Tocchet’s activities and into the facts underlying the allegations against Mr. Tocchet.”

In announcing his decision, Bettman noted some of the highlights of Cleary’s report: “I am pleased the facts as determined by Mr. Cleary and his team, as well as the manner in which the legal process and subsequent court proceedings played out, do not even approach the magnitude of severity of criminal activity first suggested or implied at the time the New Jersey Attorney General’s investigation was first made public. Contrary to initial reports, the bookmaking activity at issue was not a well-developed, complex criminal operation, and its relationship to hockey and the National Hockey League was, at best, tangential.

“While we have confirmed that a small group of current and former NHL players occasionally placed bets with James Harney (which, by itself, was not illegal under New Jersey state law), there is no evidence that any of these individuals ever placed a bet on hockey or participated in any other way in the bookmaking operation that ultimately was acknowledged to be illegal.

“Moreover, there is no evidence that anyone, including Mr. Tocchet, did anything that in any way or at any time compromised the integrity of NHL hockey or any NHL hockey game. Finally, despite persistent innuendos and suggestions regarding the possible involvement of organized crime with the activities in question, none of those innuendos proved to be true. During the course of Mr. Cleary’s investigation, absolutely no evidence was uncovered establishing any connection between the illegal bookmaking activity at issue and organized crime.

“While it is clear that criminal activity did in fact take place, and that Mr. Tocchet was involved in this activity, and while I never have and never will attempt to minimize the severity of these activities, the fact is that the reality of this case never lived up to the massive amount of hype and speculation circulating in the initial days after the investigation was made public.”

Most of that is as good as it can get for Tocchet and the NHL. The report suggests nothing was done that “compromised the integrity of NHL hockey or any NHL hockey game”.

That said, it’s comical that Bettman took the time to note “the reality of this case never lived up to the massive amount of hype and speculation circulating in the initial days after the investigation was made public.” Welcome to the information age Mr. Bettman, where information is readily available and disseminated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This story was in part driven by the unfortunate exposure Janet Jones Gretzky had to the story and the timing, on the eve of the 2006 Torino Olympics where Tocchet’s employer Wayne Gretzky was center stage as Team Canada’s general manager.

Bettman announced that Rick Tocchet would be reinstated on February 7, 2008, but will be subject to the following conditions:

(1) He may not gamble -- legally or illegally -- in any manner and without exceptions;

(2) He may not engage in any conduct which may reflect adversely on NHL hockey, the League or any Club, or on any League or Club personnel; and

(3) He must submit himself for evaluation by the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program Doctors to determine if he suffers from a compulsive gambling addiction and, if so, to undergo such treatment as the professional counselors may require.

Everyone in life, Rick Tocchet most assuredly included deserves a second chance, but one fact sticks out when it comes to Bettman’s decision. Both the Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star reported that “Tocchet brazenly entered the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas while waiting for a verdict on his legal case.”

Clearly Tocchet cannot participate in any legally or illegally gambling activities over the next three months, but if Rick Tocchet was serious about restoring his image and building his case for reinstatement, what possible rationale could Tocchet have used when he decided to participate in the 2007 World Series of Poker?

Rick Tocchet, who wanted once again to be a part of the National Hockey League, knowingly and actively participated in one of the highest profile gambling events in the world. The terrible optics-- just what was Rick Tocchet thinking at the time? According to the terms of the February 8, 2006 meeting between Bettman and Tocchet there was nothing preventing Rick Tocchet from participating in the 2007 World Series of Poker – other than common sense.

There isn’t any doubt if Tocchet manages to follow the terms and conditions Bettman outlined last Thursday, the Phoenix Coyotes will rehire Tocchet according to Bettman.

“The Coyotes' desire to have Rick back immediately was something that was made clear to me. Obviously I felt it was more important, looking at the overall League interest, that immediate reinstatement was not appropriate and that the leave of absence or suspension if you will needed to continue until Feb. 7. But I do believe that the two-year period is appropriate and this wasn't about a particular person's desire to be back coaching or a particular club or other club personnel's desire to have him back. This was about doing what I thought was right and appropriate under the circumstances.”

Cleary’s report did confirm that Tocchet had placed bets on the 2006 Super Bowl for Janet Jones Gretzky (Wayne Gretzky’s wife) but did make it clear there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever that “Gretzky has ever place bets on sports, either through Tocchet, or otherwise.” Nonetheless Gretzky has made it clear to anyone who will listen – he wants Rick Tocchet back in his dressing room and the sooner the better.

“Mr. Cleary also said, placing this type of bet in New Jersey is not criminal. Secondly, while I don't condone gambling in any form, it is something that is a fact of life and I would suspect that what any couple does in their day-to-day relationship, and how they treat their recreational activities, is something best left to them -- particularly when it doesn't involve any criminal conduct.” Bettman said.

When did sports betting become legal in New Jersey? The only legal sports books in the United States remain in Nevada. There has been talk Atlantic City casinos would like to consider legalizing sports betting, but that hasn’t taken place yet and that includes betting on the Super Bowl – despite what Gary Bettman believes.

But those sentiments aside – should Rick Tocchet be given a second chance? That remains the issue.

“There have been instances in the past where players who have either been convicted or pled to crimes have missed time in the NHL. There is no sliderule or computer-generated model that can get you to the right result on one of these cases. It's unfortunate when you ever have to deal with one. I suppose I have been fortunate because NHL personnel, by and large, are great people who conduct themselves appropriately. Having read the Cleary Report, having looked at the work papers, having spent time with Rick and his counsel, I just did what I felt in my heart and my head was the right way to respond to this situation -- and, most importantly, do it in a way that closes the door and gets it behind us.” Bettman said.

At the end of the day, Rick Tocchet should be given a second chance. His decision to participate in the 2007 World Series of Poker was a terribly timed choice in judgment, but he did nothing illegal except demonstrate poor judgment.

If after all that, Wayne Gretzky wants to rehire Rick Tocchet as his assistant (even after Tocchet placed bets for his wife), then that is Wayne Gretzky’s decision, and additionally, more of a reflection of who Wayne Gretzky chooses to hire, less than an issue of whether or not the NHL should give Rick Tocchet a second chance. So yes, while Bettman made the right decision for Tocchet and for the NHL, it remains to be seen if Wayne Gretzky made the right choice(s) as well.

For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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