Tocchet returns at critical time for Gretzky, Coyotes

And so, Rick Tocchet returns.

Disgraced (certainly).

Humbled (we hope).

Perhaps wiser (time will tell).

But we'll see him back where we last saw him in the game of hockey, standing next to Wayne Gretzky on the Phoenix Coyotes bench.

Thursday night in Columbus will be Tocchet's first game back after serving what amounted to a two-year suspension for his part in an illegal gambling ring, throwing the game he purports to love under the bus and sullying the name of the game's greatest player in the process.

There are many folks who think Tocchet got off lightly, that by acting so impudently he forfeited his place in the game. It's a moot point, but what is not moot is Tocchet can thank Gretzky for his unwavering loyalty -- loyalty that was instrumental in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's decision to allow Tocchet to return at all.

You can be sure that if Gretzky had washed his hands of the rough-and-tumble Tocchet, who played with Gretzky for two years in Los Angeles, Bettman would have had to think long and hard about whether three years or five years or more might have been a more appropriate punishment.

But Gretzky doesn't roll that way.

Tocchet was hand-picked by Gretzky when he decided to become an NHL coach after the lockout. Gretzky believed he needed Tocchet's presence in the dressing room to challenge players, to play the bad cop, to give the young Coyotes something to aspire to when it came to grit and determination. He was also the man responsible for helping the team's power-play unit.

The fact that Tocchet repaid that faith by playing Benny Bookmaker in his spare time is unconscionable, but that is the past. Now we're really going to find out what kind of stuff Tocchet is made of.

You think 1,144 regular-season NHL games and 2,970 penalty minutes suggests more than a modicum of toughness? Tocchet now returns to the game without a safety net. One misstep and he will be gone forever.

Last summer, while still on the league-imposed "leave" from his job pending the outcome of police and NHL probes, Tocchet took part in the World Series of Poker. It wasn't illegal, but the optics were clear to anyone who walks upright: It was the last place on Earth Tocchet should have been.

Whether Tocchet has a gambling problem (among the terms of his reinstatement was he attend counseling to determine whether he did) or just took one too many to the noggin is immaterial at this point. He's got his second chance, his last chance.

According to team officials, Tocchet and Gretzky were declining interviews heading into Thursday's game, although Tocchet did do a one-on-one interview with old friend Nick Kypreos on Canada's Sportsnet and Gretzky told reporters how happy he is to have Tocchet back and how much he missed him both professionally and personally.

One thing is clear: Tocchet returns at a crucial time for the Coyotes.

A team that was predicted to finish at or near the bottom of the league standings this season, Phoenix is ninth in the West entering Thursday night's action, one point out of the eighth and final postseason berth.

In their past 25 games, the Coyotes have lost only six times in regulation and lost no more than two in a row in regulation over that time. Thanks to the timely acquisition of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, plucked from Anaheim via the waiver wires, Phoenix's defensive play has improved from 28th last season to 14th this season. Offensively, the team has been buoyed by the acquisition of former Carolina Hurricane Radim Vrbata and the emergence of a handful of rookies, most notably Peter Mueller (named rookie of the month for January) and Martin Hanzal (sixth among rookies, although he's now out with an injury).

Does Tocchet, who played in 145 postseason games during his career, provide that extra spark in the dressing room? Can he make a difference in helping this overachieving bunch stay in the hunt?

Or does his mere presence, the shame his acts brought to the team and the league itself, upset the delicate balance that exists with all young hockey teams learning to win?

If it's the former, and Tocchet can make a difference and stay out of trouble, he will become a living lesson in the power of the second chance.

If it's the latter, letting down Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes again might be far worse punishment than what he has already endured.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.