Tocchet ban is just, but let's take 'Slap Shot' for what it's worth

Imagine what would have happened back in February 2006 if New Jersey police and state prosecutors had portrayed accurately the case against former NHLer and Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Imagine if they'd said, "Basically what we have here is an NHLer who's been funneling football and basketball bets from a handful of his hockey buddies (and, at least, one of their wives) to another buddy in Philadelphia. End of story."

Do you think anyone would have had a problem with the NHL suspending Tocchet for two years? No.

Instead, the local authorities gave the "undercover sting" a name, "Operation Slap Shot," and described it as a highly sophisticated betting ring.

Leaks from law enforcement sources to the media immediately alluded to ties to Philadelphia crime families. Ooh, the Cosa Nostra. Get Bobby De Niro on the phone, quick!

And, of course, there was the wife of the most famous hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, in the middle of all of this.

When the dust finally cleared on "Operation Slap Shot" -- and it finally did clear Thursday afternoon when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tocchet would be eligible to return to the game Feb. 7, 2008 -- the only thing that really stuck from the original hype was the fact Tocchet did place some bets for Janet Jones Gretzky.

So, we can understand that Bettman sounded a bit churlish in describing the circumstances surrounding the original charges and Tocchet's ultimate reinstatement.

"I think it's unfortunate to say the least," Bettman said Thursday. "Probably an understatement."

The impression left by law enforcement at the time focused attention on the case and the game that never should have been there, Bettman said.

At the time, a league source familiar with the investigation told ESPN.com there was way more smoke than fire with the charges than turned out to be true. That's small consolation for the game, which took one in the teeth just as it was enjoying a surprising renaissance after the lockout and has had to live under the cloud of the investigation until this week.

"It was a cloud that shouldn't have been there for as long as it was," Bettman said. "The cloud should be fully dissipated once and for all as of this moment."

In the end, the New Jersey officials, for all their pronouncements and vague allusions and shadowy story lines, ended up with next to nothing on the criminal tote board. They sent the alleged ringleader, former state trooper James Harney, to jail for five years. He could be eligible for parole in a year. Another co-accused, James Ulmer, was sentenced to six months in jail, while Tocchet pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years' probation.

Uh, better cancel that call to Mr. De Niro. Here's cab fare home.

As for Bettman's decision to allow Tocchet to return to work, let's just say Tocchet will be getting a belated Christmas gift.

Bettman and former federal investigator Bob Cleary, who spoke to 100 people connected to Tocchet and the bookmaking scheme (if we can call it that), acknowledged that Tocchet didn't exactly adhere to the terms of his "leave." After being told not to have any contact with NHL or team officials, Tocchet, it turns out, breached that order about 40 times. Oops.

That's pretty understandable given that, outside of his criminal friends, Tocchet doesn't likely have too many friends that aren't in the NHL.

And then, there was the fact Tocchet didn't see anything wrong with continuing to gamble, legally, by showing up for the World Series of Poker.

Both faux pas factored into Tocchet being denied immediate reinstatement, something the Coyotes were hoping for.

"I think that they were hoping for immediate reinstatement. My guess is that they were disappointed," said Bettman, who met with Tocchet and his legal counsel before meeting with the media. "We had a lively discussion which is why we were a little late."

Coyotes GM Don Maloney also has met with the commissioner earlier this week to lobby for Tocchet's timely return.

A cynic might suggest Tocchet's penalty is too light, that the embarrassment caused by the NHL veteran deserves a lengthier term, at least until the end of this season, perhaps beyond. But let's have a little perspective.

According to Cleary's investigation, Tocchet's betting ring included fewer than10 NHL people (Cleary would not identify them). No bets were ever placed on hockey games. There was never any evidence of a wider betting ring or ties to organized crime. Tocchet has been without a source of income (if you don't count gambling proceeds, of course) since he went on "leave" almost two years ago.

Then, there are the restrictions Bettman has placed on Tocchet pending his return. He is forbidden from gambling at all. He must undergo tests through the NHL/NHL Players' Association substance abuse and behavioral health program to determine whether he is a compulsive gambler. If he is, he must get treatment for that problem. Tocchet must also refrain from activities that "reflect adversely" on the league or its teams or officials.

In short, he'd better fly right.

Given all that, two years sounds just about right.

"Anybody who doesn't think that two years away from the game isn't a severe punishment is not really evaluating the entire context of what has transpired," Bettman said.

The commissioner denied that Gretzky's desire to have Tocchet reinstated had anything to do with his decision.

The team's decision to bring Tocchet back into the fold does speak to two issues starting with Gretzky's incredible loyalty.

It was The Great One who hired Tocchet when Gretzky first took over as coach after the lockout. At the time, Gretzky praised Tocchet's edge and work ethic and there is no doubt the coaching staff in Phoenix has been left wanting in Tocchet's absence. Still, Tocchet's reckless disregard for the integrity of the game and his relationship with Gretzky (how did he ever think placing bets for Janet Gretzky was going to turn out to be a good thing?) likely should have meant the end of the relationship with Gretzky, on and off the ice. But that is not Gretzky's way.

"We respect the commissioner's decision and are relieved that this situation is behind us. We will welcome Rick Tocchet back on Feb. 7, 2008," Gretzky said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Secondly, Tocchet's return reinforces that Gretzky remains a powerful figure in the hierarchy of the Phoenix Coyotes.

There was much discussion last summer when GM Mike Barnett, senior executive vice president hockey operations Cliff Fletcher and head PR man Rich Nairn, all close to Gretzky, were fired. New CEO Jeff Shumway made it clear during the offseason that things were going to change around the Coyotes, that the team wasn't going to be landing pad for Gretzky's friends.

Or not.

Bringing Tocchet back into the fold, whether he deserves to be or not, leaves little question that The Great One still calls the shots in the desert.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.