- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TURIN, Italy — As Wayne Gretzky and members of his staff sat down in a jam-packed interview room last night, a public relations rep asked the media horde to confine questions to Team Canada’s quest for another gold medal in men’s hockey at the Winter Olympics.

Naturally, the first, second and third questions dealt with what the public relations rep did not want asked.

It was “the cloud,” as one reporter put it: Even though Canada has a powerhouse team favored to win the gold, the story was Gretzky’s connection, if any, with an illegal gambling ring authorities said was financed by his friend and Phoenix Coyotes assistant, Rick Tocchet.

Gretzky’s wife, actress Janet Jones, reportedly placed large bets with the ring. But no accusations have been made against the Great One, other than he might have asked Tocchet how to keep Jones out of trouble.

Gretzky, the Coyotes’ coach, is also executive director of Hockey Canada and is largely responsible for putting together its Olympic team. Not least of all, he is the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer, maybe its best player ever and a beloved figure with a pristine reputation in his native country.

This is a big story in the sports world but a monstrous, gigantic story north of the border. His press conference was televised live throughout Canada.

Gretzky, polite and patient as usual, reiterated what he has been saying all along.

“It doesn’t involve me,” he said. “I’m not involved. I’ve said it for seven days. It’s over and done with. The concern is to worry about playing hockey.

“Quite frankly, that’s the last time I’m gonna talk about it,” he said. “I’ve stood forward each and every day. I’ll talk hockey all day long. Any questions anybody wants to ask me about the hockey team or the Olympic Games, no problem. But it’s over and done with. If we don’t win a gold medal, obviously I’ll get blamed. But I’ve been blamed for losses before, so it’s not gonna change my life.”

Gretzky was linked to the gambling ring when a New Jersey state trooper, another New Jersey man and Tocchet were charged with running a nationwide sports gambling operation. State police said wagers exceeded $1.7 million in the five weeks leading to the Super Bowl and were mostly on pro football.

Charges came following a six-week police investigation called Operation Slap Shot.

The ring reportedly was patronized by NHL players, but there is no evidence any bet on hockey games.

Gretzky’s wife hasn’t been charged, but she is expected to be subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating gambling activity, attorneys said.

“It’s been a hard week for my family, and the only focus I have right now is this hockey team,” Gretzky said.

Canada, the birthplace of hockey, waited 50 years to win a gold medal in 2002 at Salt Lake City and is favored to do it again. Some conspiracy theorists believe the timing of the scandal, such as it is, is kind of suspect. Who needs this kind of distraction?

But if you believe anyone connected with Team Canada, this has not been a distraction, nor will it become one. They are fully unified behind their leader, and the matter to them is closed.

“I’ve worked with Wayne since 2002, and, of course, I’ve known him a lot longer,” coach Pat Quinn said. “I feel, as [do] all of our teammates, that we support him. He said he has nothing to do with this thing. It’s in the league’s hands, and they’re gonna look further into this thing. As far as we’re concerned, Wayne has our utmost support.”

The players all are on the same page, too. A random sampling:

Bryan McCabe: “This has no bearing whatsoever on what we do.”

Captain Joe Sakic: “We’re here to play hockey, and that’s what we’ve been focused on for a long time now, and we’re all excited it’s here, and that’s all the guys care about.”

Rob Blake: “It’s not really even worth talking about. Until you know the total facts, it’s very difficult to talk about.”

Adam Foote: “That’s really not got a lot to do with us. We’re here for a job, you know that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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