Coach Benched By Betting Probe

Phoenix Coyotes interim coach Rick Tocchet looks on from behind the bench during the first period against the St. Louis Blues, Dec. 20, 2005, in Glendale, Ariz. Wayne Gretzky's wife and about a half-dozen NHL players placed bets, but not on hockey, with a nationwide sports gambling ring financed by Tocchet, authorities said Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006
AP
Rick Tocchet isn't welcome in the NHL as long as he's suspected of being linked to a big-time gambling ring.

The former All-Star player who became Wayne Gretzky's right-hand man on the Phoenix Coyotes' coaching staff was granted an indefinite leave of absence Wednesday night by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Tocchet's departure came a day after he was accused of financing a nationwide gambling operation that allegedly took bets from about a half-dozen current players.

Tocchet met with Bettman and requested the leave, which the commissioner agreed to as long as several conditions were met. Tocchet must immediately cease all contact and communication with NHL and team personnel and stay away for the duration of his leave. He will not be allowed to return without Bettman's consent.

The commissioner also reserves the right to change the terms of Tocchet's absence at any time.

"We view the charges against Mr. Tocchet in the most serious terms," Bettman said in a statement. "We have pledged our full cooperation to the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. While we are conducting our own investigation, we have made clear to the law enforcement authorities in New Jersey that we will do nothing to interfere with their ongoing investigation."

The NHL hired former federal prosecutor Robert J. Cleary, who headed the Unabomber case, to investigate Tocchet.

Tocchet came to the meeting with his new attorney, who officially informed Bettman and Cleary of the pending charges that Tocchet is facing.

On the advice of attorney Kevin Marino, Tocchet wasn't prepared to respond to specific questions about the allegations, the NHL said in a news release. It was at the end of the meeting that Tocchet requested the leave of absence.

Marino called the state's charges against his client "false and irresponsible."

"Mr. Tocchet is one of the most well-respected men ever to play in the NHL, and he's respected for his integrity, his determination and his strength," the Newark-based lawyer said. "We deeply regret the attorney general's precipitous charges and are appalled at the ensuing media frenzy."

Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, was also implicated, two law enforcement officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because no bettors have been publicly identified.

She hasn't made any public statements, and Gretzky said Tuesday that she would answer questions at some point.

"First of all, my wife is my best friend," Gretzky told reporters. "My love for her is deeper than anything. The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved."

Gretzky, revered as hockey's greatest player who is now in his first season as coach of the Coyotes, met with reporters after his team's 3-1 loss to Chicago on Tuesday night and said he had no knowledge of any gambling allegations until Tocchet called him Monday night.

"The sad thing about this whole scenario is that Rick is a wonderful person and a great guy, so I hope everything works out in his favor," Gretzky said. "It's hard because I love the guy. He's a great guy, you know. I just hope it all works out for him."