Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Don't Bet on It! Gambling and Hockey

On the 17th of August, former NHL player Rick Tocchet has a sentencing hearing in New Jersey. He most recently served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes, but has been on an indefinite leave of absence since the time he was charged with gambling.

Tocchet recently plead guilty to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling. It is expected that he will receive probation for his indiscretion, because he co-operated with the authorities after he was charged.

Tocchet was playing in a little more than a “penny ante” poker game. It was revealed that his group handled $ 1.4 million over the last 40 days before he was arrested in a sting called “Operation Slapshot”. How appropriate!

Former New Jersey State trooper James Harney, Tocchet’s partner in the gambling ring, recently received five years in prison for using his patrol car in the operation. The other partner, bookie James Ulmer, also entered a guilty plea on the gambling and conspiracy charges.

Tocchet played eighteen years in the NHL for seven different teams. He scored 440 goals and had 512 assists, pretty respectable numbers.

When asked about Tocchet’s status after the guilty plea, NHL Commissioner Bettman avoided doling out any punishment. “I’m not really in a position to say what’s going to happen until there’s a complete disposition of his case.”

Rest assured, the hammer will fall on Tocchet’s NHL career. As a friend and employee of Wayne Gretzky, he did nothing to enhance the Great One’s image with his activities. Even Gretzky’s wife Janet Jones went along for the ride, as she was linked to placing bets with Tocchet and his cronies. To make matters worse, Jones and Tocchet participated in a poker tournament in Vegas less than two months ago.

Hockey has never been totally immune from gambling. All of the big shooters in the early days had their hands in the pursuit. Conn Smythe, the mastermind behind the Toronto hockey franchises, spent as much time at the race track as he did the rink.

In the mid 1920s, Smythe was hired by Colonel John Hamond to build the first roster of the New York Rangers. When he fell into disfavour with the Colonel, Smythe returned to Toronto with a $ 10 000 severance cheque in his pocket and with revenge on his mind.

He took $ 2 500 from the cheque, doubled it on a college football bet, and then wagered $5 000 on the Rangers to beat the Toronto St. Pats. With his winnings, he was able to convince the St. Pats owner that the team should stay in Canada. Smythe then bought the team, went blue and white, and changed the name to the Leafs.

Connie had paid $ 250 for a nag named Rare Jewel. A perennial loser, The Jewel was entered in a prestigious race, the Coronation Stakes. Smythe poured a pint of brandy down her throat, bet heavily on the horse at 107-1 odds, and used a portion of the $ 35 000 he won to snare King Clancy over from the financially-strapped Ottawa Senators. Clancy played seven big seasons for the Leafs, and stayed on as an executive for decades.

A couple of other families dominated the game in the United States in the infancy of professional hockey- the Norris family and the Wirtz family. You name it-they were involved in it. Always with money on the line.

In the 1940s, three NHL players were suspended for gambling. Initially, the bans were for life; however, each of the suspensions was retracted. Babe Pratt got the boot in 1946 for betting on hockey. Pratt did not bet on games in which his Leafs were involved. He promised not to do it again. He was reinstated after 16 days.

Two other players also received lifetime suspensions. Bruins teammates Billy Taylor and Don Gallinger were kicked out of the game for gambling, more specifically for betting on their own games. They were cleared of charges that they tried to fix an NHL game.

Gallinger initially claimed innocence; however, he fessed up nineteen months later and admitted betting as much as $ 1000 on games his team was playing. Taylor admitted betting $ 500 on the same game as Gallinger. In the 1940s, not exactly chump change. Gallinger also was found to be supplying bookies with information about the Bruins “sick parade”-players who were injured. Nowadays, if a player has a cold, the injury report usually states: “upper body injury”.

In his wonderful book, Players-The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone who has played in the NHL, Andrew Podnieks sheds a little more light on Gallinger’s fate. He was a young phenom, and played with the Bruins when he was 17. He played on a line with two other teenagers, one being Bep Guidolin, who later coached the Belleville McFarlands.

Both Gallinger and Taylor were reinstated in 1970.

When former Belleville football star Mike Schad played with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was often questioned about the injury status of the star players before a game. The illegal bookies needed that information to calculate their odds., and to enhance their winnings. Schad had no time for that action. He was only interested in protecting Randall Cunningham at the time.

The NHL has avoided serious gambling scandals since the 1940s; however, the Tocchet situation indicates that there will always be someone out there, somewhere, wanting to lay down a couple of bucks on a game. And there will always be someone to take those wagers, some legal, some against the law.

In a television special on hockey called Major Misconduct, the CBC investigated gambling and hockey, with an eye on the Russian influence. The league’s position: “The league takes very seriously any allegations of potential influence of a Russian criminal element on the game or its players and has been closely monitoring the situation since 1996.” That was in relation to Fetisov and Bure with suggestions that they may have been contacted by the Russian mafia.

Fortunately, hockey has, for the most part, escaped the gambling bug. With swift and harsh punishment, all involved in the game will avoid the temptation of getting richer a little quicker-by gambling.

Note to all concerned: find another hobby.

James Hurst
August 8, 2007

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