'Operation Slap Shot' soap opera will blow over

I have covered hockey and the NHL in some form since 1989 and rather voraciously since 1996. Whether it's because of my age or lifestyle or demeanor or whatever, I have found myself in fun and interesting situations involving NHL players that would make for quite a reality show. I've made close friends and have a pretty good grasp of what has been going on in the game over the past 10 years. I don't think there is any story that would surprise me.

"Operation Slap Shot" is no different.

Gambling has always been prevalent for some players, like some members of our society. However, gambling became more widespread and amped up in the NHL after players' salaries exploded during the mid-'90s, give or take a few years. Blackjack, poker in planes and locker rooms and wagering on sporting events are the most popular forms. There are numerous stories of players winning $30,000 in blackjack. You don't hear as much about the big losses, but I did once play golf with an executive at a casino who told me a former New York Ranger once signed over his entire paycheck, about $300,000, to cover his losses. Playing blackjack at a casino is legal, so there is no act of unlawfulness there. Just a severe lack of judgment.

Gambling on sporting events is enjoyed by millions of Americans. It's what drives the NFL. The weeklong buildup to the games, the affordability of season tickets (because there are only 10 home games, counting preseason) and the way the game televises so well are all reasons for the NFL's success.

However, the NFL clearly benefits from gambling. Fantasy football has been the latest jolt for the league. The glut of gamblers over the past five to 10 years from the growth of fantasy football has resulted in higher ratings and higher television rights fees. Take away gambling and the NFL owners and players would suffer financially. The NFL is the most popular sport for NHL players to bet on, but for those who get really wrapped up, they continue onto the NBA and even baseball in the summer.

The addiction of having something riding on a sporting event is a hard addiction to shake, especially when one has a lot of money and free time to kill. How many NHL players partake in this? That is difficult to say, but based on what I know, I would say the over/under is about one third, with one to three players per team who are really high stakers. You might see that number fall with the younger players because I don't think they don't like sports as much. Video games and Texas hold'em probably take up most of their free time -- and trying to get Tara Reid's phone number.

At this point, I should say, that through it all, I've never even heard a whisper of players betting on NHL games. It is probably the most unspoken taboo I've been associated with in my involvement in the hockey world. It was as if the players wouldn't even let themselves think of something like that. Why? Well, I believe they truly held the game in such high regard. That for all of their gluttonous, salacious lifestyles, the NHL player loves and respects the game like no other.

Betting on NHL games would never even cross his mind. A player wouldn't let it. And if it did sneak into a player's mind, it would have been one of those thoughts or visions we all have; we let it flash across our minds, but choose to ignore it so it won't return. Like Barry Melrose in a wrestling suit, wearing an eye patch and black socks, and wielding an axe in the middle of a Barnes and Noble. Did I just write that or think it? Again?

Additionally, the NHL is nearly impossible to bet on. The game is too capricious and unpredictable. That's what makes it great. You can't choreograph a hockey game like a pitcher in baseball or a coach and quarterback in football. No one really wins money in those sports, either, but the bettor feels like he is more in control. That's what bettors want, some sense of control in their money-losing venture. The only true way to be profitable in the world of gambling is to take bets. Open a casino or take bets. That's where the money is.

Players make too much money and not enough of the public bets on hockey. This inside-information angle on "Operation Slap Shot" is silly. There's nothing to gain, there's not enough money to cover all of the people who would need to be taken care of. Have there been situations where NHL people bet on the NHL? I'm sure it's had to have happened at least once. But you can't bet on this game.

Yes, NHL players gamble on other sports. Your $100 entry fee for a fantasy football league is comparable to an NHL player's $10,000 bet on NFL games. This story is about really only two people, and maybe three if you are an NHL fan. Janet Jones-Gretzky is not one of those people. If she wants to bet $100,000 during the NFL playoffs, whatever.
What are she and her husband worth? $30 million? A $100,000 bet is three percent of Janet's net worth, assuming her and Wayne share everything. That's like a person making $100,000 betting $300 dollars. But Jones-Gretzky betting $100,000 will sell newspapers and create Internet traffic because it's a "story."

No, this is mostly about Rick Tocchet and Wayne Gretzky.

Tocchet will be arraigned Feb. 21, unless things change this week. I am hesitant to say much about Tocchet until this plays out more. Let's just say he has issues to deal with and maybe he and his lawyers will be smart enough to deal with them.

Wayne Gretzky? Throughout this whole "Operation Slap Shot" media soap opera, my feelings for all the parties involved haven't really changed that much, knowing what I know. I knew from the start the Janet Jones-Wayne Gretzky aspect was for the investigation to get attention, for the media to sell papers and get "traffic."

As mentioned above, his wife's wagers were probably in line with her net worth. And as far as Wayne is concerned, he has too much to lose from a corporate standpoint to mess around in some small-time gambling ring. Wayne sells an image. He pushes cars and hamburgers in Canada. His image is -- legally -- worth easy millions and adds to his net worth every year. He won't play around with that. His name and image have gotten him too much access, too much expensive red wine, too many unforgettable rounds of golf at amazing courses, to throw it away for some small-time South Jersey operation, where Circuit City meets Kay Jewelers at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike.

The only area where Wayne, and perhaps Coyotes GM Mike Barnett, was guilty of bad judgment was to let Tocchet be involved in this side business. Did they think it involved what the charges say? Maybe not completely. But I have to think they had to know he was the go-to guy to place a bet. Or maybe get a good deal on a plasma television set.
Perhaps the one area where Wayne let down his organization or season-ticket holders is that he is now a coach who has distractions.

I understand the Coyotes have, like, 58 coaches on their staff, but Tocchet is behind the bench. His job is to look at hours of game film and break down the Predators' power play. Anything less than immersing himself in the NHL, anything that takes him away from that, is bad for him and his team. Tocchet is a new coach, who has yet to prove himself. He was given this opportunity because of his name, courage and toughness as a player, but he has to prove himself again.

No, I don't see much coming out of "Operation Slap Shot" outside of Rick Tocchet. The only thing it uncovered is perhaps the Coyotes are run too much like a boys' club, that the attitude is maybe a bit laissez-faire and things need to be tightened up a bit. But maybe Tocchet's hire will prove to be the only bad one Gretzky makes and maybe The Great One truly can bring a Stanley Cup to Arizona. But he is a long way away right now.

Other than that, this will blow over. In the end, the most important thing to understand, the most important thing to come out of this is that the game is not in the midst of a scandal. And The Great One is still great.

The Mother of All Mailbgs


Your wish for an NHL commercial during the Super Bowl went unanswered again. What I did notice, however, was the obvious slight ESPN gave the NHL in its commercials for ESPN Mobile. The best ESPN could do for hockey is a poster with the word "Miracle" on it? Why again do people keep e-mailing you seeking the return of the NHL on ESPN?

Jim Campbell
New York, N.Y.

I received a lot of e-mails from people like you, Jim, expressing their disappointment that the ESPN Mobile commercial did not include an NHL player. It does appear that the spot was shot in the summer and perhaps the lockout prevented a player or uniform from appearing. However, it seems like it would have been very easy to edit in an NHL player on roller blades, or fake ice, and implement it into the spot. There is no excuse to have someone pulling a bus in the commercial and not to have an NHL player.


These have been a very sad few days. As if the hockey world hadn't suffered enough. Why is it that the rich always feel they are above the law? Illegal gambling, racketeering, tax evasion. The hockey world is tainted. "The Great One" may have made a great mistake. So many boys, and girls for that matter, of all ages look up to Gretzky, and he may have taken this massive irresponsible path to failure. What will this do to hockey? How could they have done this without thinking about the consequences? This is truly a sad moment in time for all hockey fans. I feel nothing but disappointment and disbelief.



With the March 9 trade deadline approaching, do you think there will be any movement by the Penguins? Mark Recchi's name has been thrown around quite a bit, and Craig Patrick said he would be willing to move some veteran players that want to play on contending teams. What kind of talent do you think the Penguins might see in return if they do make any moves?

Matt Little
Lewisburg, Pa.

There is a freeze on trades during the Olympic break. Once that freeze thaws at the end of the Olympics, NHL GMs have about 10 days to make deals. The Penguins have desirable assets. John LeClair and Mark Recchi are obviously looking to move on and participate in the postseason. Recchi might be able to fetch a second-round pick, although a third-rounder seems more likely. LeClair would probably fetch a fourth-to-sixth rounder. All the Penguins' defensemen, outside of Ryan Whitney and Brooks Orpik, could also be moved for midlevel draft picks.


Are the Rangers for real? What should they do at the trade deadline?

Brian Goldberg
New York, N.Y.

The Rangers are absolutely for real. They have the league's MVP, a Vezina candidate and a Coach of the Year candidate. They could use some depth to guard against injury and they really need a power-play point man. Come playoff time, Jaromir Jagr will get physically abused and it will be interesting to see if he can lead a team through the playoffs in those tough, painful times. In his last 22 Stanley Cup playoff games, Jagr has four goals. The Rangers' power-play percentage is just 17 percent. I know Petr Sykora has helped that power play with his booming shot, but another dangerous defenseman may create a bit more space for Jagr, who will set a career high in power-play goals this year.


Should the Buffalo Sabres not be making a call to St. Louis regarding Keith Tkachuk? The Sabres are filled with speed, but need a big, nasty winger for a serious run in the playoffs. The Sabres have cap space and have tons of prospects in Rochester and can offer something that St. Louis needs (which is one of everything).

Welland, Ontario

A driven Keith Tkachuk would help a lot of teams. He'll be looking to impress GMs as his contract nears its end. He has a no-trade clause, but it's hard to imagine him not going to a playoff team. The Sabres could certainly use a power-forward left wing like Tkachuk, but I suspect that's not the direction in which the Sabres will go.

Dear John,

What do they do with all the hats people throw on the ice after a hat trick? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Big Sur, Calif.

According to NHL.com: In 1858, a cricket player in England took three wickets with consecutive balls, an incredible trick. As a reward, his club gave the bowler a new hat, hence the name "hat trick." According to other reports, some hats are tossed and some hats are left in a bin so fans have a chance to reclaim the hats, but health issues don't allow teams to donate the actual hats to charity. Some teams have adopted programs where they donate new hats after a player scores a hat trick.

Hey John,

I was watching some old Bruins games the other day and I got to wondering, why isn't Rick Middleton's No. 16 hanging from the rafters in The Garden? I mean come on, he had five straight seasons of 40-plus goals and 90-plus points, and with the Bruins he had 427 goals and 551 assists (regular season and playoffs). Also, what do you think the chances are that Middleton makes the HOF? In my mind, he deserves it.

Greg Breault
Providence, R.I.

Let's break this down. Rick Middleton played 12 seasons for the Boston Bruins. That's more than Bobby Orr, Cam Neely and Phil Esposito. Rick Middleton scored 448 goals in 1,005 career games. At the start of this season, he was 54th on the all-time goal-scoring list. "Nifty" scored a goal in 45 percent of the NHL games he played. That is a better percentage than Mark Messier, Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan, John Bucyk, Ron Francis, Stan Mikita, Dale Hawerchuk, Gilbert Perreault, Glenn Anderson, Norm Ullman, Denis Savard, Dave Taylor, Bill Barber and Yvon Cournoyer.

His playoff statistics nearly mirrored his regular-season statistics. He was clearly one of the most visually pleasing players to watch in his era. His style of play fit his era perfectly. He would have had a much harder time with today's defensemen with their size and mobility. My Hall of Fame standard is probably lower than most. I think the more players, the better. Every player is special. Every player brings something different. Rick Middleton was unique. I can't think of a player really like him. He had one of the great nicknames of all time. He played with style and class. He had angelic hands that probably would have made him a world-class surgeon. My Hall of Fame standard is based on yes, no and maybe. I know some only want the immediate "yes" inducted: Yzerman, Orr, Lemieux, Bourque, Wayne, Gordie, Messier, and so on. I tend to be more lenient on the "maybes," especially if they were unique. I believe Rick Middleton was every bit as effective and as good a player as Hawerchuk, Shanahan, Anderson, Savard and Andreychuk. If you believe those players are Hall of Famers, then I believe Rick Middleton is a Hall of Famer. I would hang No. 16 in the rafters of the Bruins ATM Arena.


With all this talk about the Calder Trophy, did people just forget that Ryan Miller is a rookie? On the entire season, he has comparable stats with Lundqvist, and since coming back from injury, he's even better than that.

Mike R.
Buffalo/Potsdam, N.Y./Hartford area

Unfortunately, Ryan Miller's injury will prevent him from having a chance at winning the Calder. He's only played 29 games and that's just not enough. Buffalo has 26 games left. Now, if Miller plays in 23 of those games, reaches 52 and Buffalo wins the East, then we can revisit the argument. His goals-against average is slightly higher and save percentage slightly lower, but yes, he and Lundqvist are comparable. That will only hurt them in the voting. The Calder will go to either Ovechkin, Crosby or Phaneuf. Ovechkin is eighth in league scoring, and Crosby is tied for 10th. Phaneuf leads all players, not rookies, players, in power-play goals by a defenseman. He is an immense talent. I'm shocked Canada didn't name him to the Olympic team.


Hey man. I was curious about several guys having poor seasons in the NHL and what you thought might be wrong with them this year:

1. Bill Guerin
2. Milan Hejduk
3. Martin St. Louis
4. Jeff O'Neill
5. Shane Doan

Also, where is Owen Nolan? Did he retire?

Jeff Fahrenkrog

1. Guerin: Mentally drained from a year of CBA negotiations. He still has a chance to get 20-plus goals, which is basically what he is. He's only had 30-plus goals three times in his career.

2. Hejduk: Only five equal-strength goals as I type this. He's either injured or not getting the puck where he needs to get it. We'll give him a pass.

3. Martin St. Louis: St. Louis won the scoring title in 2004. As I type this, he is tied for 73rd with Mike Sillinger. Don't blame the power play. St. Louis only had eight power-play goals when he won the scoring title and will likely finish with as many, or more, this season. He hasn't been as good at even strength and he had a dream shorthanded goal season with eight in 2003-04. He has one this year.

4. Jeff O'Neill: Lost his brother before the season. He obviously has a heavy heart. He's also a little too slow for the quicker NHL. He only has four even-strength goals this season. He's a career minus-115.

5. Shane Doan: He is barely in the top 100 of NHL point-getters. He is a near non-factor in equal-strength offense. He needs a great center that can get him the puck and his release is not top level, so that's why he is a 20-goal scorer. If he had O'Neill's hands to go along with his courage and toughness, he would be Jarome Iginla. Instead, he's Bill Guerin Light.


My first son's middle name has to be Keith (family thing; son's middle name equals father's first name). What fits with (Blank) Keith Watts? We might be in need of a name sooner than I expected!

Keith Watts
Clarkson University, Class of '99 (Chris Clark is my hero, too)

Watts. Cool last name. Wyatt Watts. Willie Watts. Sylvester Keith Watts. Sly Watts. My gosh, a legend is born.

Hockey fact: The fastest goal to start a game is five seconds, accomplished by three different players: Alexander Mogilny, Doug Smail and Bryan Trottier.


I recently read about Jose Theodore's recent substance violation with the male hair-loss drug Propecia. I ask you, why would a guy with a FULL head of hair need Propecia? Oh, it's because he likes to wear his hair long. If I'm doing my math properly, he is 29 years old, and according to him, has been taking it for about eight years. So, at 21 he (and his doctor) thinks it's a brilliant idea to prepare for his potential future hair loss and start taking a drug that just came on the market about eight years ago. Let me get this straight, he's gonna start taking a brand new drug for a condition he doesn't even have -- now that's called forward thinking!

Steve Rutledge
Sharks fan in San Francisco

Considering some of Theodore's family history and Rick Tocchet's follicle scenario, one would have thought the stories would have been reversed, if you asked someone on a deserted island what person matches what story.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.