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Scandal less than great for Gretzky and hockey

TURIN, ITALY — Turin, Italy-- --The winter's first big Olympic scandal is about to arrive. It's scheduled to leave the United States late Sunday night and touch down in Italy the next day. Everyone's already abuzz about its arrival.

This isn't just a pretty good scandal. This is The Great One.

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A gambling investigation has threatened to take a sport that was on its knees and put it on ice. The waves that battered the NHL this week will fully douse the Winter Games when Wayne Gretzky, the executive director of Team Canada, arrives in town.

These Olympics were supposed to inject public fascination back into a beleaguered sport. Not for the hockey fans, but for everyone else. Even with last year's lockout, hockey faithful barely wavered in their collective loyalty. The Olympics were a chance to show the rest of the world, though, that the game is back.

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Without a legitimate big-time television contract, a gaping disconnect has grown between a sport and a nation of idle fans and curious observers who have no hockey outlet. These Games would showcase the action, the energy and the hot young talent.

But the sport's favorite son - the chosen one, The Great One - has spoiled it. The action now will be an afterthought to the controversy.

You think the world's media will be clamoring to ask Gretzky about Canada's chances of winning a second straight gold? Don't bet on it. Everyone wants to know which hockey stars will be wearing cuffs, not medals.

No one here is whispering about whether there was any actual gambling. They want to talk about which players were connected to the New Jersey-based gambling ring, the one investigators say was financed by former NHL star Rick Tocchet, now an assistant coach to Gretzky with the Phoenix Coyotes.

It's very possible that before a single puck drops in Turin, one or more players scheduled to represent the United States and Canada in these Winter Games will be linked to the investigation, dubbed "Operation Slap Shot" by authorities. Officials with Team USA say they're "monitoring the situation," though they hope the American roster remains unaffected.

There isn't a penalty box big enough to hold the names that are being whispered about, and there's no scoreboard large enough to tally the damage being wrought.

The truth is, though, the name that matters most is Gretzky's. No matter what he says, the sport's most important iconic figure is involved on some level, and he's the reason this controversy could have more of an impact than even the lockout.

The cancellation of last season was met with apathy. If investigators find that Gretzky was involved in illegal gambling, shock waves will reverberate through a continent of loyal worshippers.

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"The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved." That's what Gretzky said Tuesday. The next day, investigators told The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., that they have wiretaps that prove Gretzky was aware of the gambling. The Associated Press reported that in the past few weeks, Gretzky talked with Tocchet about how his wife could avoid being implicated.

Investigators are certain that Janet Jones bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on sporting events (though, evidently, not hockey). They're still trying to figure out whether she was merely placing the bets on behalf of her Hall of Fame husband.

The Canadian press called the union between a D-list actress and hockey's greatest a "royal wedding." But that was 18 years ago. By now, their marriage is officially of age. The better half, now the bettor half ... in sickness and health and through Jersey criminal investigations?

As more information comes out, Gretzky looks less and less like an innocent. Can you picture the hockey great lying in bed with his wife, he skimming some Proust and she studying the Daily Racing Form?

Wayne: Dinner was great, sweetheart. And I really liked you in Police Academy 5, too. Janet: Thanks, honey. Do you think the Clippers are nine points better than the Knicks tomorrow night?

If Gretzky's wife was laying cash on sports, the smart money says that hubby knew. How does someone bet $500,000 in just a few weeks and the spouse have no idea?

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Sure, it's possible in theory - he lives in Phoenix, she in L.A. - but impossible in practice. Even to the ultra-wealthy, a half-million is a noticeable chunk of change.

Investigators are certain that she placed the bets. Now they want to know if someone else was above her pulling strings.

Gambling is based on a simple concept: win or lose. Big bets can lead to big things. Right now, investigators are digging into one of the biggest gambles the sports world has seen - and the money is only trivia, at this point.

At stake is not only the reputation of a legend, but also of a sport that was already on thin ice.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog


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