NEW YORK (AP) - Rick Tocchet's involvement in a gambling ring wasn't as deep as initial reports suggested, but damaging enough to keep the Phoenix Coyotes' assistant coach out of the NHL for at least a few more months.
Tocchet, sentenced in August to two years' probation after he pleaded guilty to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling, can't return to the NHL before next Feb. 7, commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday.
The former star forward has been on an indefinite leave of absence since being charged in February 2006 and hoped to be granted immediate reinstatement.
Bettman said no.
``He unfairly cast an unfavorable and negative light on our game and some of the great people in our game,'' Bettman said. ``Employment and participation in the National Hockey League is an honor and privilege that cannot be taken for granted.''
Tocchet will have been out of the game two years by the time he can ask to come back. Wayne Gretzky, the coach and managing partner of the Coyotes whose name was initially linked to the probe, is looking forward to his return.
``We respect the commissioner's decision and are relieved that this situation is behind us,'' Gretzky said in a statement. ``We will welcome Rick Tocchet back on Feb. 7, 2008.''
If not for supporters in powerful places, it's anyone's guess how long Tocchet might've been kept out.
``Mr. Tocchet has a lot of friends in this game, all of whom - virtually without exception - consider him a good person with good moral character,'' Bettman said. ``The Coyotes' desire to have Rick back immediately was something that was made clear to me.
``I felt it was more important, looking at the overall league interest, that immediate reinstatement was not appropriate, and the leave of absence - or suspension - needed to continue.''
While a date has been set for Tocchet's return, there is no guarantee he will be back then.
There are conditions that must be met, and since Tocchet violated others set forth by Bettman in granting the leave of absence, there are no assurances he will fully comply with the new guidelines.
The commissioner called it ``inexplicable'' that Tocchet engaged in legal betting even after the ring was exposed.
``I remain concerned as to whether Mr. Tocchet is adequately sensitive to the seriousness of the admitted misconduct, especially in his role as a highly visible and prominent employee in a professional sports league,'' Bettman said.
Tocchet may no longer gamble - even legally - and is prohibited from taking part in any activity that would reflect negatively on the NHL. He also must submit to evaluation by doctors connected to the league's substance abuse and behavioral program to determine if he has a compulsive gambling problem.
If it is determined that Tocchet has a gambling addiction, he will be required to get treatment. That wouldn't necessarily preclude him from a February return.
There were approximately 40 instances in which Tocchet had prohibited contact with NHL-connected people during his leave, but those were determined to be of a personal nature and not regarding his case. Bettman said those violations were a factor but not a determining one in deciding to push the ban from the 21 months already served to two years.
When the story broke just before the 2006 Turin Olympics, talk of possible involvement by Gretzky and connections to organized crime dominated the headlines. A criminal investigation and one conducted by former federal prosecutor Robert Cleary, hired by the NHL, found no evidence to support either report.
Cleary interviewed approximately 100 people and found fewer than 10 with NHL connections involved in the betting.
``It was not a well-developed, complex criminal operation, and its relationship to hockey and the National Hockey League was at best tangential,'' Bettman said. ``While I never have and never will attempt to minimize the severity of these activities, the fact is that the reality of this case never lived up to the massive amount of hype and speculation circulating in the initial days.''
Still, Tocchet did plead guilty to a crime - one that threatened the integrity of the NHL even though there were no signs that wagers involved hockey or that any games were compromised.
However, in the 40 days that led up to the charges, the ring handled $1.7 million in bets, including college football bowl games and the Super Bowl.
Cleary's long-awaited report was delivered to the NHL on Monday. It had been held up because Cleary wanted to interview Tocchet before submitting his findings. Tocchet declined to talk to him until the criminal case was settled in August.
Bettman met with Tocchet, the coach's lawyers and Coyotes general manager Don Maloney on Tuesday and informed them of his additional ban Thursday.
``There is no slide rule or computer-generated model that can get you to the right result on one of these cases,'' the commissioner said. ``It's unfortunate when you ever have to deal with one.
``I just did what I felt in my heart and my head was the right way to respond to this situation, and most importantly, to do it in a way that closes the door and gets it behind us.''
The commissioner pointed out that there was no similarity between Tocchet's case and one the NBA faced with former referee Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty to betting on basketball games and providing inside information to others.
Tocchet partnered with New Jersey state trooper James Harney and another man, James Ulmer, in the ring. Tocchet shared in profits and losses but not equally.
``This is not in the same universe that may have gone on in another sport,'' said Bettman, formerly an assistant general counsel with the NBA under commissioner David Stern. ``This has nothing to do with betting on our game.''
Tocchet, who could've received up to five years in state prison, referred bettors to Harney and placed bets for Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones Gretzky, Cleary said.
``He has paid an extremely high price for his conduct,'' Bettman said, ``which although perhaps not as bad as originally suggested, was nevertheless highly inappropriate and illegal.''
Associated Press Writer Angela Delli Santi in New Jersey contributed to this report.

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