Players asked 'specific' questions about Tocchet ring

An independent investigator hired by the NHL to probe allegations of a gambling syndicate operated by Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet has interviewed NHL players and team officials, almost four dozen in all, and has yet to uncover any evidence the game's integrity has been compromised by people betting on league games, sources close to the investigation told ESPN.com.

The initial results of the ongoing investigation, headed by former federal prosecutor Bob Cleary, suggest the gambling operation, which law enforcement officials allege was funded by Tocchet, is extremely narrow in focus and essentially extends only to a group of friends and associates close to Tocchet.

A source familiar with the NHL's investigation said the questions asked did not delve into the gambling habits of the players beyond whether they had any connection with the Tocchet probe.

"It was pretty specific," the source told ESPN.com.

The NHL Players' Association has been aware of the interviews and had representatives on hand. Another source said the union has no concerns that the betting scandal involves betting on hockey games or is widespread. That source told ESPN.com the amounts bet on football games are much lower than were first reported.

The specific nature of the questioning was in part because of the NHLPA's involvement and in part because the league's investigation is specific to determining the breadth of the Tocchet gambling allegations, the source said.

NHL investigators have yet to interview the core group of six to 12 individuals closest to the criminal investigation, a source familiar with the probe told ESPN.com.

The NHL is not legally prohibited from interviewing this group, which is made up of people New Jersey authorities allege wagered large sums of money on sports, mostly football and basketball. However, to maintain a good working relationship between the league and the law enforcement community, the NHL's investigators have agreed to wait to conduct such interviews until New Jersey prosecutors give their permission.

That approval has yet to be given by New Jersey officials.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com the league's investigation remains ongoing, "and we really don't have any further comment at this time."

New Jersey officials remain vague on when a grand jury might be convened to hear the charges against Tocchet and his co-defendants, James A. Ulmer and New Jersey state trooper James J. Harney.

It was believed the case would proceed sometime in the spring, but a source told ESPN.com that, given initial timetables suggested to the league, the case is already behind schedule.

Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general's office, told ESPN.com's Mike Fish last week that there was no news regarding when the grand jury might convene to hear the Tocchet case, other than sometime this spring.

"That is the best guess," Loriquet said. "That is what people downstairs tell me. Again, there is no fine point on this."

The league's policy regarding gambling is that players may not bet on hockey.

Daly and NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin have said there are no plans to revisit the policy, although a source said it's possible that could change in the future, depending how the Tocchet criminal proceedings play out.

When asked at the Olympics in Torino about the possibility of making the league's gambling policy more restrictive, Saskin said the union would be leery of prohibiting players from taking part in legal activities such as visiting casinos and placing legitimate bets on sports other than hockey.

Tocchet, 42, was charged in early February with money laundering, conspiracy and promoting gambling after an undercover investigation dubbed "Operation Slap Shot" discovered what authorities said were $1.7 million in bets placed over a 40-day period leading up to this year's Super Bowl.

Within hours of the story breaking, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league would launch an independent probe to ensure the integrity of the game had not been compromised. Cleary, who led the federal prosecution of "The Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, and is a partner in the New York law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, which has close ties to the NHL, was chosen to lead the probe.

The NHL's interviews have focused on players and team officials who are one or two steps removed from the core group but who might have had a relationship with Tocchet or others believed to be involved in wagering with Tocchet. The information gained from these interviews was crucial to determining whether the wagering was widespread or contained to a close group of friends.

The results to date indicate the New Jersey criminal investigation is "a total nonevent," as it relates to the league, one source said.

"A lot of smoke, but no fire," the source said.

The source added that all those interviewed have been cooperative, saying it was another indicator that the so-called betting network is extremely limited and that NHL games were not involved. Had interview subjects refused to answer questions or been evasive about wagering or their knowledge of wagering within the NHL family, the potential for damage to the league would be greater.

The Arizona Republic reported March 18 that, as part of the league's investigation, most of the Coyotes' players were interviewed individually for about 10 minutes in their Chicago hotel during a road trip.

Tocchet, who is on a leave of absence from the Coyotes and is forbidden by Bettman from having contact with any league personnel, has not been arraigned on the charges. He declined, through attorney Kevin Marino, to be interviewed for this story. Marino has maintained from the outset the charges "were outrageous" and that leaks coming from law enforcement sources early in the process were "improper."

Early leaks named Wayne Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones Gretzky, as someone who regularly placed bets with Tocchet. Sources claim Jones Gretzky wagered as much as $500,000, including $75,000 on the Super Bowl, during the course of the investigation.

After Marino warned that such leaks could be the basis for civil lawsuits, very little information has been forthcoming from New Jersey officials, prompting some connected with the investigation to suggest the case against Tocchet will be difficult to prove.

The leaks, along with the lack of further evidence arising from the NHL's investigation, support a theory popular in the hockey community that law enforcement officials were trying to deflect attention away from the fact that Harney, the other main defendant in this case, is a state trooper.

Harney was identified as Tocchet's partner in the alleged bookmaking operation and faces charges of official misconduct, money laundering and promoting gambling. He has been suspended without pay.

One top NHL agent told ESPN.com that the real question of integrity isn't about the game but about the police investigation, given that the game's most important figure, Gretzky, has been sullied even though there is no suggestion Gretzky was involved in the betting scandal.

"That's integrity? If they have time, they can call me. I bet on the Super Bowl, too," the agent said.

When Jones Gretzky's name was leaked, the attention naturally shifted to Gretzky, the game's most recognizable figure and a close friend of Tocchet's.

Gretzky repeatedly has denied he placed bets with Tocchet. Jones Gretzky also said, through a spokesman, that her husband did not bet. She did not address her own wagering relationship with Tocchet.

Jones Gretzky is expected to testify before a grand jury in New Jersey but is not expected to be charged criminally. Attorney General Zulima Farber confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press on March 15 that Jones Gretzky would be subpoenaed.

Law enforcement officials also quickly alleged a link between Tocchet and the betting ring and known members of organized crime families in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Defense attorneys for the three men charged insist no such links exist.

In addition to Cleary's interviews with the main group connected with Tocchet, it's believed he has interviews with more peripheral players and team officials scheduled but those interviews have yet to take place.

The league's investigation will be completed only when New Jersey officials proceed with their criminal case, assuming they do move forward against Tocchet.

"Gary's not going to get in the way of an investigation of this magnitude," said one well-connected hockey source.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.