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2006-02-08 00:00

  Coyotes assistant coach linked to gambling ring

  By Chris Newmarker, The Associated Press

  EWING, N.J. — 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 Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, authorities said Tuesday.

  Gretzky, hockey's greatest player, is in his first season coaching the Coyotes and is a part-owner of the team.

  According to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case contacted by The Associated Press, and one law enforcement official contacted by USA TODAY, Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, placed bets with the group.

  Asked about her involvement, Gretzky laughed and said, "Oh really? I don't know. You'd have to ask her that."

  State police Col. Rick Fuentes said an investigation into the New Jersey-based ring discovered the processing of more than 1,000 wagers, exceeding $1.7 million, on professional and college sports, mostly football and basketball.

  The developments came at a sensitive time for the NHL, which is trying to win back fans after a season-long lockout and just days before many of its best players will showcase their talent at the Torino Olympics.

  Tocchet was served with a criminal complaint Monday and was expected to travel from his Arizona home to answer charges of promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy, Fuentes said.

  A criminal complaint informs Tocchet of authorities' intention to formally charge him and the need for him to arrange to travel to New Jersey for formal charging, or face arrest.

  "It's not a hockey-related issue, it's a football thing. And at this time I can't comment any further," Tocchet said after the Coyotes practiced Tuesday.

  Gretzky said Tocchet would be on the bench for Tuesday night's home game against Chicago, and it would be "business as usual."

  "Everyone in the world is innocent until proven guilty," Gretzky said. "He's a great guy and a good friend. He's just going through a tough time right now, obviously, and we've got to let it run its course. It's a situation that's obviously a concern for the organization at this point."

  Tocchet acknowledged that a New Jersey state trooper arrested in connection with the gambling ring case is his friend. Tocchet said he would cooperate with the investigation but didn't answer when asked if he'd surrender to authorities.

  "We understand that Mr. Tocchet's conduct in no way involved betting on hockey," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "And, while betting on football or other sports may be the pervasive issue, it in no way justifies poor judgment or otherwise alleged inappropriate conduct."

  Daly said the NHL was conducting its own internal investigation.

  Authorities said Tocchet and state police Trooper James Harney were partners in the operation, with the ex-NHL forward providing the financing.

  "Tocchet received illegal sports bets from wagers and funneled money back to New Jersey," Fuentes said.

  Tocchet, one of three associate coaches on the Coyotes' staff, took over the head coaching duties for 10 days in December while Gretzky was with his dying mother.

  The 41-year-old Tocchet played 18 years with six teams, including three seasons with the Coyotes from 1997-00. He is one of only two players in NHL history to collect 400 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes.

  Tocchet was a fan favorite during his two stints with the Flyers (1984-92, 2000-02). Flyers star center Peter Forsberg on Tuesday described Tocchet as "a good guy, a funny guy."

  "I think everybody is surprised," Forsberg said. "It's definitely not good for the sport to hear something like that."

  Harney, 40, was arrested Monday and has been suspended from the force. The eight-year police veteran was charged in an arrest warrant with official misconduct, promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. Another man accused of taking bets is James Ulmer, 40, who was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

  Both men were free after posting 10% of their bail. Harney had $100,000 bail; Ulmer had $50,000 bail. The two men were expected to be arraigned in state Superior Court in Burlington County within two weeks.

  Craig Mitnick, a lawyer representing Harney, said his client hadn't decided whether to contest the charges in court.

  The police investigation into the ring started in October 2005 after authorities received a tip on Harney's sports wagering from his Marlton home, and taking phone calls during his patrol job based out of the agency's Moorestown station, Fuentes said.

  Fuentes did not disclose the bettors' names and said charges against more individuals were possible. He described one of them as a "movie celebrity."

  The gambling ring had a connection with organized crime in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, Fuentes said.

  Starting Monday night, authorities seized property from Harney and Ulmer. State police seized $27,000 in currency, "voluminous" amounts of sports betting information and bank accounts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Fuentes said.

  A search of Harney's house recovered more than $250,000 worth of Rolex watches and nine plasma-screen televisions, including two from his bathroom.

  In 1,144 NHL regular-season games, Tocchet had 440 goals, 512 assists and 2,972 penalty minutes with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and Phoenix. Tocchet won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992 and appeared in the Stanley Cup finals with Philadelphia in 1987. He appeared in four NHL All-Star Games: 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1993.

  The NHL veteran was also hired by the Colorado Avalanche as an assistant coach in 2003.

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