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No. 99 to be the one in the spotlight

TURIN -- This isn't Salt Lake City, much to Wayne Gretzky's chagrin, and he and his fellow Team Canada hockey honchos won't be able to slip into Palasport Olympico and secretly freeze a dollar coin beneath the ice for good luck.

What worked in Utah, a coin magically transformed into a gold medal, has lost some in translation -- four years later, and a couple of million bucks in phoned-in bets gone by.

The Great One, upon meeting tonight with the international Olympic media, will feel the public glare as he's never felt it before in his 45 years. Just as the world was stretching out 'round the five-ring campfire here for the start of the XX Winter Games, Gretzky made headlines back in North America as a person of interest. And oh, has he been of interest.

To be the Great One, of course, is to wake up every day as a person of interest. But in this case, Gretzky had his name associated with the New Jersey attorney general's investigation into a betting ring with -- and here's the real point of interest -- connections to organized crime. For the better part of a week now, Gretzky has denied even a penny's worth of involvement with said ring, but he has acknowledged that his wife, former actress Janet Jones, and longtime pal/employee Rick Tocchet, both have placed a wager or two with the ring.

''It's a dead issue for me now," Gretzky said Saturday while he was still stateside, still watching over his players as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Gretzky the same day added, ''I have no involvement . . . I'm not in it, and it's unfortunate that it had to transpire."

Now the story picks up here in the shadows of the Alps, with Olympus the stage, and that journalistic marshmallow roast just aglow for No. 99's first words following Team Canada's early-evening training session. As dead issues go, it promises to be a lively exchange, no matter how doggedly Gretzky attempts to construct firewalls around the campfire.

Dead issue? Not yet. And likely not even when the Games end here, be it with the Canadians holding gold, or Gretzky, who put together the team, holding a summons and a court date.

If it ever is officially ruled a dead issue, that word will come from the New Jersey attorney general's office, or from the police and detectives carrying out the investigation. The cops have one of their own knee-deep in this one, only adding to the skulduggery and intrigue. According to law enforcement authorities, the police officer, James E. Harney, an ex-bartender who befriended Tocchet years ago, was the point man who handled the action. Somewhere, somehow, law officials contend, that action funneled to the mob. They've labeled their investigation ''Operation Slapshot."

The Games are no stranger to scandal. Every two years, Summer Games included, the world gets all it can handle in the form of athletes disqualified for a multitude of drug-related no-nos. In 2002, while the Canadians were plugging along to their first hockey gold medal since 1952, the Games tossed a new gutterball when Marie-Reine LeGougne, a French figure skating judge, admitted doctoring her scores in the pairs competition as a quid-pro-quo between the Russian and French skating federations.

Now we have the iconic Gretzky, hockey's all-time greatest scorer and perhaps the most famous Canadian of all time, hobnobbing with the Lords of the Rings while maintaining his ''Hey, it's not me, it's my, uh, wife!" posture. Sure, it could be true. There has been nothing in Gretzky's publicly known background that would point to him being anything akin to Pete Rose on double runners. He had an exemplary career, and as far as anyone knows, has lived a life equal to the numbers he posted in his NHL days.

However, there is an obvious stretch in believability in this one. Even if Janet Jones were to show up one day at Suffolk Downs, able to spell the name of every horse in the fifth race, perhaps while blindfolded, the court of public opinion will be that she was acting as the Great One's beard, placing his bets under her name. Even then, that wouldn't put him in jail, but it sure would place him in a straitjacket vis-a-vis the many corporations he has attached his name and likeness to over the decades.

Nothing like a reputation for betting with bookmakers to turn off carmakers, insurance companies, and banks. All the more repugnant if the bookie is a dirty police officer. Gretzky's marketability wouldn't be as buried as, say, O.J. Simpson's, but it might not be much better than, oh, Newsie Lalonde or Surfin' John Blue.

Of the many tantalizing parts of this story, none (we think) has anything directly to do with hockey. Thus far, none of the leaks out of the attorney general's office, or from the police, has linked Gretzky, his wife, or Tocchet to placing a wager on something as scintillating as a Blues-Predators tilt in mid-November. Nonetheless, the NHL, well aware of how damaging such a scandal could be, promptly hired an independent investigator, a former prosecutor who chased Ted ''The Unabomber" Kaczynski into the slammer, to pick apart the histories and betting slips of all NHL-related parties allegedly involved.

There is a cliché in the sports betting world that only the dumb, the really dumb, bet on the unpredictable, nearly unhandicapable sport of hockey. But that offers no proof of solace here. Why would anyone with the kind of smarts and wealth of Gretzky, Gretzky & Tocchet bet on hockey? Ridiculous. But then again, if someone is dumb enough to bet at all, then, well, at least two-thirds of that trio already apparently has met the first criterion on penning, ''Betting for Morons." And again, with public perception undoubtedly figuring that Mr. Gretzky was sharing his sports knowledge (not handicapping, but information sharing) with Mrs. Gretzky, the leap in logic here is a perilous one at best.

Gretzky will be quizzed tonight by the international media, some of whom never have set foot in North America, never mind an NHL rink. Most of the interest will come from the radio and TV representatives of the United States and Canada. Scandal is hardly unique to North America, nor is Gretzky's appeal. But by and large, the Great One is far greater at home than here, because the Original 30, as much as some of us may love it, doesn't shake down the thunder in the Alps with the might of a World Cup skier. The Great One here is Alberto Tomba.

To take Gretzky at his word, he is guilty of nothing. If we are to believe the attorney general's office, his wife might have a bad betting habit, and that would make her husband, consciously or unconsciously, an enabler. Perhaps he is so rich that he took no notice of a spouse who, by what law officials have said, totaled bets in the tens of thousands of dollars. Perhaps he is so immersed in all things Coyotes and Canada that he also didn't know that Tocchet, his close pal and top bench aid, was the co-enabler who forwarded Mrs. Great One's bets to the cop gone bad. But again, sure seems a stretch, no?

So tonight it's welcome to the fun and Games for the Great One. How things have changed from four years ago. In Salt Lake City, where a half-century's futility came to an end, the ''loonie-buried-in-ice" provided the '02 Games with a touch of enchantment and romance. Gretzky and his band of madcap Canadians had the loonie chiseled out after the win, and it soon was forwarded to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, all as if scripted by Disney animators.

Now it's Gretzky and the Olympics again, and before the puck drops tomorrow night, everyone wants to know if he, his wife, and his good friend have buried other secrets.

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