The expanding gambling scandal rocking the NHL as it tries to reestablish itself after a yearlong lockout is encircling Phoenix Coyote Coach Wayne Gretzky.
The man considered the greatest hockey player of all time reportedly was caught on wiretaps showing clear knowledge of a multimillion-dollar betting ring based in New Jersey and allegedly financed by Coyote assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
Gretzky, also managing partner of the Coyotes, has come under increasing scrutiny after it was learned that his wife, actress Janet Jones, reportedly had placed bets with Tocchet, one of Gretzky’s close friends and a former NHL All-Star.
A new name surfacing in the investigation by New Jersey State Police is Mike Barnett, general manager of the Coyotes and Gretzky’s close friend and former agent. Barnett is believed by authorities to have placed one bet, on the Super Bowl, according to an NHL source.
There is believed to be no evidence that Gretzky placed a bet with Tocchet. The case also involves current and former NHL players who reportedly placed bets, but none, including Jones, apparently bet on hockey.
Late Thursday, Jones issued a statement denying she placed any bets for her husband, though she did not deny making bets.
“At no time did I ever place a wager on my husband’s behalf, period,” she said. “Other than the occasional horse race, my husband does not bet on any sports.”
Jones has not been charged.
A spokesman said she might be called as a witness before a grand jury in connection with the investigation, which first became public Tuesday.
Gretzky, who said Tuesday he had talked with his wife but did not discuss her reported involvement, was caught on tape by law enforcement officials discussing the gambling operation with Tocchet, the Newark Star Ledger and the Associated Press reported Thursday.
The Associated Press, citing a person with knowledge of the investigation, reported that Gretzky was heard discussing with Tocchet how Jones could avoid being implicated.
As the scandal has unfolded, it has involved more and more of Gretzky’s inner circle. Tocchet is a longtime friend who played with Gretzky for two seasons on the Kings and was seen as a successor as the Coyotes’ coach. Barnett was Gretzky’s agent for 21 years and became the club’s general manager in 2001.
New Jersey law enforcement officials say the ring has been in operation since 2001. According to investigators, in a short period -- Dec. 29 through Feb. 5, the day of the Super Bowl -- $1.7 million in wagers were placed with the ring, which was run by a New Jersey state trooper, James Harney, Tocchet and a third man, James Umbler, a resident of southern New Jersey.
All three men will be arraigned Feb. 21 on charges of promoting gambling, conspiracy and money laundering, the state attorney general’s office said Thursday.
The ring is believed to involve at least 12 current and former players.
Gretzky has long been a marquee face for the league, and is dealing with his first real career crisis, which comes shortly after the deaths of his mother and grandmother. Tocchet, in fact, took over as coach of the Coyotes in December while Gretzky had left the team to be with his dying mother.
Gretzky also serves as executive director of Canada’s hockey team for the upcoming Winter Olympics and is expected to arrive in Turin, Italy, on Monday.
Tocchet was granted an indefinite leave of absence after a meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman Wednesday.
The growing investigation -- which now includes an internal investigation by the NHL -- led the NHL Players Assn. on Thursday to advise its members to seek legal counsel if contacted by New Jersey authorities or league investigators. Team officials, meanwhile, have been advised not to publicly discuss the legal matters of the case.
“The NHLPA has been informing our members and certified agents that under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, when the NHL launches an investigation and conducts interviews, players have the right to have their own independent counsel or an NHLPA attorney present at all times,” said Jonathon Weatherdon, an NHLPA spokesman.
“The NHLPA has recommended that players investigated in connection with criminal proceedings retain counsel so that their legal rights are fully protected.”
Authorities have “already talked to many of those involved and will talk to many more,” said Capt. Albert Della Fave, a spokesman for the New Jersey state police.
The Kings’ Jeremy Roenick is one of those on the list, NHL sources said, as are the Boston Bruins’ Travis Green and former forward Kevin Stevens.
Roenick would not comment about the case Thursday. When asked for an interview, he said, “Sure, about hockey and how we need to get out of this losing streak.” When asked to talk about non-hockey issues, he smiled and said, “I have a son and a daughter and beautiful wife named Tracy.”
The alleged involvement of Barnett took the matter to the management level.
The Coyotes referred all questions about Barnett to a statement by Jim O’Neal, the team’s director of security.
“There are a lot of rumors circulating with many names included,” O’Neal said. “As part of the ongoing investigation, I spoke [Wednesday] with [law enforcement] authorities from New Jersey to answer any questions which they may have had. At the conclusion of the conversation, it was requested that I make no comment as to the nature of our discussion, due to the ongoing proceedings. I was also advised by the authorities [Wednesday] that they did not likely foresee a need for further questioning pertaining to any members of our organization, whether it be Michael Barnett or others.”
The league has hired former U.S. attorney Robert Cleary, who prosecuted the case against Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
A senior NHL official said Cleary’s mandate is “to investigate all aspects of the allegations and do whatever is necessary to get to the bottom of this.”
Times staff writers Lisa Dillman, in Phoenix, and Helene Elliott, in Turin, Italy, contributed to this report
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A look at some sports-related gambling scandals:
*2006: Phoenix Coyote assistant coach Rick Tocchet is accused of financing a nationwide gambling ring in which half a dozen NHL players bet on professional and college sports, mostly football and basketball -- but not hockey.
*1998: Former Northwestern football player Brain Ballarini pleads guilty to gambling charges and admits he had run betting operations at Northwestern and University of Colorado. Northwestern basketball players Dion Lee and Dewey Williams admit they tried to fix games in 1995.
*1997: Former Arizona State basketball players Stevin Smith and Isaac Burton Jr. plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit sports bribery in a point-shaving scheme that fixed four Sun Devil games.
*1996: Thirteen Boston College football players are suspended for betting on college and pro football and major league baseball. Two players bet against their team in a loss to Syracuse.
*1991: Phillie center fielder Lenny Dykstra admits having lost $50,000 in illegal poker games in Indianola, Miss., in late 1989 and 1990. He is placed on one year’s probation.
*1989: Pete Rose is placed on baseball’s permanently ineligible list for gambling on sports -- he denies betting on baseball at the time. Banned from being considered for the Hall of Fame, in early 2004 he admits to betting on the Cincinnati Reds -- always to win, he says -- when he managed them.
*1985: Tulane ends its basketball program after point-shaving allegations. The school resumes basketball for the 1989-90 season.
*1981: Rick Kuhn, a former player at Boston College, and four others are found guilty of conspiring to shave points to fix basketball games in the 1978-79 season. Kuhn was later sentenced to 10 years.
*1970: Detroit Tiger pitcher Denny McLain is suspended for three months for a 1967 involvement in bookmaking.
*1963: Green Bay Packer halfback Paul Hornung and Detroit Lion defensive tackle Alex Karras are suspended indefinitely for betting on their games. The two star players are reinstated the next year.
*1952: Kentucky has its basketball program suspended for the 1952-53 season after a point-shaving scandal.
*1951: Several college basketball teams are caught up in point-fixing schemes. City College of New York, Manhattan, Long Island and Bradley are among those involved.
*1947: NHL Commissioner Clarence S. Campbell suspends Boston’s Don Gallinger and New York Rangers’ Billy Taylor for life for gambling.
*1947: Brooklyn Dodger Manager Leo Durocher is suspended for the 1947 season for consorting with gamblers.
*1943: Phillie owner William Cox is ordered to sell the team after admitting he made “15-20 bets of from $25 to $100 per game.”
*1921: Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox are given lifetime suspensions for conspiring to fix the World Series in the “Black Sox” scandal.