The Great One skates into betting scandal

The ice hockey legend with the Hollywood wife is linked to illegal multimillion-dollar sports gambling ring
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Tomorrow, an exalted member of the Canadian Olympic delegation will arrive in Turin. He bears, relatively lightly, a nickname, "the Great One", and carries the blueprint of his ice hockey team's defence of its 2002 Winter Olympics gold medal.

Chances are, however, that there will be no red carpet or welcoming kiss on both cheeks from Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, for Wayne Gretzky brings with him a whiff of misfortune, if not scandal.

Gretzky, 45, regarded as the greatest player in the history of ice hockey, now part-owner and coach of the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League, has been connected to an illegal multi-million dollar betting ring. The links appear undeniable, and are deeply embarrassing to the NHL, still trying to regain public favour after a labour dispute forced it into the unprecedented cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

Last week, New Jersey state police announced they had uncovered an illegal sports betting ring financed and organised by former player Rick Tocchet, an assistant coach with the Coyotes and a close friend of Gretzky's. Tocchet has been charged with promoting gambling, money-laundering and conspiracy.

The ring had been monitored since late December. In the five weeks between then and last week's American football Superbowl, the ring generated $1.7m, taking wagers on college and professional football and basketball. Police say the ring has been operating since 2001, with the involvement of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family.

In that $1.7m, according to press reports, were bets of between $100 and $500,000 from Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones. A former actress and mother of their five children, Ms Jones, 45, is best known for a small role in the women's baseball movie A League of Their Own. According to The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, New Jersey, a police phone tap recorded Gretzky asking Tocchet how his wife could avoid being implicated in the ring.

Gambling isn't illegal under US law, but brokering or profiting from bets is. In a carefully worded statement, Gretzky has asserted his innocence of any involvement in illegal gambling. "I did nothing wrong, or nothing that has to do with anything along the lines of betting," he said on Thursday. "I've felt like the last three days I've defended myself over something that absolutely, unequivocally, I was not involved with."

Canada's Olympic team goalie, Martin Brodeur, calls Gretzky "the icon of hockey", a view shared throughout Canada. Gretzky is the face of the Phoenix Coyotes and the NHL as it struggles to maintain relevance in the fiercely competitive American sports market.

The situation calls for the finest in crisis management, and Gretzky will be able to turn to his wife's publicist, Elliot Mintz. He fills the same role for Paris Hilton, and knows how to cope with a tabloid uproar.