With Tampa Bay Lightning job, Rick Tocchet all the way back from depths

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet was suspended from the league for 21 months after his involvement in gambling.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning coach Rick Tocchet was suspended from the league for 21 months after his involvement in gambling.

TAMPA — For now, this is his team. For now, this is his time.

For now, the clock is ticking for Rick Tocchet.

The new coach of the Lightning glided across the ice on Tuesday morning, his voice low but firm, a teacher's voice in a profession of screamers. If Tocchet was merely another coach stopping by for another 16 games or so, he did not seem to be aware of it.

Is Tocchet the right man or is this the wrong job? Can he bring structure and stability to a team that could use a little of both? And how long will he get to make his point? The coming days will answer all questions.

For now, it was hard not to notice that Tocchet looked like a man grateful for his opportunity.

When you consider the scandal in his recent past, who could blame him?

There are those who would deny him this opportunity, you know. There are those who would dump him into the bin with Pete Rose and Art Schlichter and Shoeless Joe Jackson and leave him there. Headline Justice being what it is, there are those who would have banished him from an NHL bench forever.

After all, Tocchet gambled. He was suspended by the league for 21 months. He pleaded guilty to third degree charges of conspiracy and promotion of gambling. He would still be under probation if it had not been rescinded early by the state of New Jersey.

Yes, all of that is regrettable stuff.

But, no, it does not add up to a man's career.

It was Tuesday morning, and Tocchet had just finished his news conference. He sat in an empty locker in the interview room, facing the old questions he knew would come again, searching carefully for the proper words to explain how a man who risks his reputation is always making a bad bet.

For Tocchet, this is delicate stuff. There seems to be part of him that wants to tell you what he did wasn't nearly as bad as you might have heard. Then, halfway through his explanation, he interrupts himself to tell you that he accepts the responsibility for his missteps.

"Don't get me wrong, I've made mistakes,'' Tocchet said. "I pleaded guilty, and I'm not running away from that. I'm not bitter. I'm not screaming on the courthouse steps.''

Perhaps you remember the case. "Operation Slapshot,'' the New Jersey State Attorney's office called it, though Tocchet was never accused of betting on hockey. In fact, the conclusion of the NHL's "Cleary Report,'' a 14-page document based upon interviews with 90 subjects, found "no hint'' of hockey wagering.

And yet, the rumors swirled throughout the investigation that Tocchet was the banker of a gambling ring and that organized crime was involved. Neither was true. More than anything, that seems to annoy Tocchet.

"Ninety-nine percent of what was written was false,'' Tocchet said. "The people who know me, those are the people I'm concerned with. The people who Google and then believe something that wasn't true? I can't worry abut those people or I would lie awake all night.''

Yeah, Tocchet said, he was a "social gambler.'' He liked to bet when he played golf. He played cards. Yes, he said, he has bet $1,000 on a blackjack hand.

If any of that concerns you, Tocchet says he paid for two "extensive evaluations'' by experts to prove to the NHL that he did not have a gambling problem. "Do I have to gamble every day? No. Do I have to gamble when I see something? No.''

The NHL seemed to agree. These days, sports leagues are scared to death of gambling accusations, because no other scandal questions the integrity of the final score as thoroughly. It is safe to assume that if the NHL had found anything, it would have slammed the door on Tocchet.

Yet, if you want to boil the Cleary Report to its essence, it concludes that Tocchet was a good guy who did a bone-headed thing.

"There are those who might suggest that Tocchet should be prohibited from resuming active status in the league for an extremely long and additional period of time, perhaps forever,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last November as he reinstated Tocchet. "In my view, those who would make such a suggestion probably are not familiar with all of the facts and still are focused on the original headlines.''

Tocchet said he was not concerned that the reports would keep him from becoming a head coach.

"I knew what I had done, and I knew what the commissioner said in his report,'' Tocchet said. "Could it have affected some owners? Yeah, maybe. But I know a lot of general managers and owners, and they know what kind of guy I am.''

So who is Tocchet? He's a coach who is confident of his ability to make players better. He doesn't think of himself as a screamer, but he warns that "players don't want to get on my bad side.'' He doesn't promise victories; he does promise effort.

At this point, it is too early to tell if Tocchet is going to be a better coach than Barry Melrose.

All things considered, yeah, he seems like a fairly safe bet.

.FAST FACTS

NHL's findings

The NHL hired Robert J. Cleary to investigate Rick Tocchet's gambling involved. Here are the findings he submitted as part of his report:

• We found no evidence of any betting on hockey by NHL personnel.

• We found no evidence of any efforts to compromise the integrity of any hockey game.

• We found no evidence of any connection between Tocchet's illegal bookmaking activity and organized crime.

• We found evidence suggestive of Tocchet's financial participation in the bookmaking operation with (then-New Jersey state Trooper James) Harney. Additionally both Tocchet and Harney confirmed their partnership under oath in their guilty plea allocutions.

• We found evidence that a small group of current and former NHL players also placed bets with Harney. There was no evidence that these individuals ever placed a bet on hockey, or participated in the bookmaking partnership between Tocchet and Harney.

• We found evidence that since his leave of absence began in February 2006, Tocchet has had a significant amount of contact with individuals within the NHL, in violation of his agreement to disassociate himself entirely from the league during that time as a condition of his leave of absence.

With Tampa Bay Lightning job, Rick Tocchet all the way back from depths 11/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 7:38am]

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