Notebook > Sports

Skating on thin ice

Sports | A sports betting ring allegedly has close ties to the NHL and star Wayne Gretzky

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

It's the last thing the National Hockey League needed. With the sport struggling to win back fans after a 2005 lockout, hockey could ill afford another black eye-especially on its biggest star's face. Earlier in February, New Jersey authorities announced they had uncovered a nationwide sports gambling ring with close ties to NHL legend and Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky.

Investigators with the New Jersey State Police have discovered that Janet Jones, Mr. Gretzky's wife of 17 years, placed $1.7 million in bets in the past six weeks in a gambling ring operated by one of Mr. Gretzky's assistant coaches and a New Jersey state trooper. New Jersey State Police charged the coach, Rick Tocchet, and the trooper, James E. Harney, with several counts of money laundering, gambling promotion, and conspiracy. According to investigators, the tightly knit gambling ring had been set up by the pair to take large bets from NHL players and Mr. Gretzky's wife. It's unclear how the trooper became involved, but officials charged him additionally with official misconduct for taking bets while patrolling the New Jersey Turnpike.

"The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved," Mr. Gretzky said. "Am I concerned for both of them? Sure there's concern from me. I'm more worried about them than me." Police have not implicated Mr. Gretzky himself in the probe, just those close to him.

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For the National Hockey League, the problem is two-fold. As a hockey ambassador, Mr. Gretzky, a nine-time league MVP, carries an image and reputation the league desperately needs. And while Mr. Gretzky may not ultimately be implicated, detectives seem to be unraveling a sports betting ring with books kept by an assistant coach and with a client list including some of the league's brightest stars.

Mr. Gretzky has insisted he didn't know his wife was making large bets, including $75,000 on the Super Bowl and $5,000 on the coin toss. But sports betting has been the capital crime of the sports world since the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Baseball legend Pete Rose sits on the outside of the sport's hall of fame because of his gambling habits. Former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel was fired because he filled out a college basketball bracket in a high-stakes pool. With the sordid history of gambling and sports, Mr. Gretzky cannot afford to have any involvement at all.

Hanging Chad

They don't call them stock cars for nothing. When NASCAR officials discovered a slight modification in the height of Jimmie Johnson's back windshield during pole qualifying for the Daytona 500, the racing league suspended Mr. Johnson's pit crew chief for the biggest race of the year. NASCAR also threw out Mr. Johnson's qualifying time-he finished fifth-so he was forced to start from near the rear of the pack.

It isn't the first time the crew chief, Chad Knaus, has found trouble. Last year, NASCAR suspended Mr. Knaus for two races and fined him $35,000 for jury-rigging Mr. Johnson's ride to make it faster. It's all fair if it's within the rules, and in these cases, Mr. Knaus has been skirting them. It makes Mr. Knaus an innovator and a risk-taker if not a cheater.

But one driver has another name for him. "There's a little bit of a double standard,' said driver Kevin Harvick, who lost his crew chief for six races last year due to suspension. "There's probably a reason why Chad Knaus maybe has been brown-nosing too much. I don't know. Maybe we need to brown-nose a little more."

Around the Horn

It was disappointment and redemption for the United States at the beginning of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. When figure skater Michelle Kwan withdrew, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno fell down, and skier Bode Miller lost control, the United States' gold hopes weren't tarnished. Where the outlandish Mr. Miller stumbled, little-known American downhill skier Ted Ligety surprised everyone with a gold-medal performance.

U.S. snowboarder Shaun White may be flamboyant like Bode Miller, but at least Mr. White backs it up. Mr. White, nicknamed the "Flying Tomato" for his flowing red mane that escapes his snowboarding helmet, took gold in the men's halfpipe. The 19-year-old included two 1,080-degree jumps in his routine, launching himself more than 25 feet in the air and grabbing his board all the while for style points. The ever-cheerful Mr. White (contrasted to the ever-surly Mr. Miller) mused he might follow up Olympic gold in the traditional way: "I might visit Disneyland."

It's not exactly clear what makes Germany so dominant in women's luge, but no one will be questioning it any time soon. Germany swept the event as luge legend Sylke Otto picked up her second gold medal. A luge medal sweep isn't all that rare for the Germans. In 12 tries, they've swept six times. In all, Germans have taken 27 of the 36 medals awarded since the sport debuted in the 1964 games-the remnants, some say, of the vaunted East German Olympic machine.

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