Gretzky makes journey from legend to liability

Canada's ice hockey icon is under investigation for illegal gambling activity. Mike Rowbottom reports from Turin
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Wayne Gretzky, the most celebrated ice hockey player in the history of the game, arrived at the airport here yesterday looking less like "The Great One" and more like "The Weary One". And his condition was not entirely to do with an exhausting overnight flight from Toronto.

The executive manager of Team Canada, who set out in defence of their Olympic title with a match against the hosts today, may just have spent 12 hours above the clouds, but he was unable to evade the metaphorical version enveloping him following a state investigation into illegal gambling back home.

Whether the team he has hand-picked to repeat the gold-medal winning performance at Salt Lake City - which contains nine of the gold medal-winners - will manage to escape any fall-out remains to be seen.

Gretzky, who is also head coach and part-owner of the National Hockey League team Phoenix Coyotes, has vigorously denied ever wagering on professional sports. But he has faced increasing calls from the media to step aside until he is cleared of any wrong-doing. He travelled with his wife, the actress Janet Jones, who has been implicated as a placer of bets.

The New Jersey Star Ledger, citing law enforcement sources, reported that secretly recorded phone calls revealed Gretzky knew about the ring. It said investigators were looking into whether he placed any wagers through Jones, who is alleged to have bet $500,000 (£288,400) on games during a six-week state investigation known as Operation Slap Shot. It is not illegal for anyone in the US to gamble on sport but anyone who takes a bet must have a licence.

The newspaper cited investigators as saying there was no evidence that Gretzky directly bet through the ring.

Rick Tocchet, a Coyotes assistant under Gretzky, was charged this week by New Jersey authorities with financing the ring, which police allege took in more than $1.7m (£1.2m) in bets during the investigation.

Gretzky has maintained that his presence in Turin would not be a distraction, as his job was simply that of supporting the players. "The focus I have right now is this hockey team and getting ready for the Olympic Games. The focus should be on these athletes," he told a news conference before flying to Italy.

He spoke for barely five minutes before the conference was ended by a Canadian hockey federation official after Gretzkyhad been repeatedly asked about the integrity of the game.

"That's not for me to talk about," Gretzky responded. 'There's no story about me, that's what I keep trying to tell you. I'm not involved." But Gretzky's Olympic experience here is already shaping up as something that will contrast uncomfortably with his two previous appearances, as a player and then as an inspirational rinkside leader of a team which claimed its first Games gold in half a century.

Eight years ago, at the age of 37, Gretzky used the Nagano Olympics to make his international farewell as a player after a career reputed to have earned him more than $100m. The man who finished his career as the NHL's all-time record points scorer showed only glimpses of a sublime gift that had already been diminished by a serious back injury five years earlier.

But at 5ft 11in, and dwarfed by his 6ft 4in colleague Eric Lindros, Gretzky - in his trademark 99 shirt - still demonstrated a game which, like his face, was all angles. The progress of the years was evident in one obvious respect in Japan, however. While his younger colleagues vaulted to and fro over the barrier between bench and ice, Gretzky used the gate provided.

He departed with dignity after Canada had lost their semi-final to the eventual winners, the Czech Republic, commenting: "When you don't win, you have to accept the lumps and take your bruises. When you win, you accept the flowers and roses." He arrived at the Salt Lake Games of 2002 in charge of a team whose players' combined annual salary was $118.2m. But there was no price that could have been put on the gold medal they eventually earned at the expense of their marginally less wealthy rivals, the United States. It was Gretzky's turn for roses, but four years on, the odds - if that is the right phrase - would appear to favour more lumps and bruises.

Life is far from trouble-free for two of Canada's main ice hockey rivals. Dominik Hasek, whose heroics in goal helped win the 1998 Olympic title for the Czech Republic, has had all of his playing equipment go missing during his complicated plane journey to Turin from Ottawa via Washington and Milan and he was sweating on its reappearance in time for today's tournament opener against Germany. He is being helped out temporarily with kit from Italy's goalkeeping coach Jim Corsi.

US team officials meanwhile suffered an anxious 24 hours as all but two of their players had flights delayed because of snowstorms back home. "It's been a little crazy," an official said. "But all of our guys are here now."