Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was asked whether he would know if his wife was placing substantial sports bets through assistant coach Scott Arniel.
"You would know it," Ruff said, "because Scott would have a black eye."
The reporters around Ruff erupted. So did he, unable to maintain his deadpan for long.
Then the laughter subsided quickly.
Gambling is no joking matter for the NHL, especially not after New Jersey authorities on Tuesday accused Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet and two other men of running a multimillion-dollar bookmaking operation with possible ties to the mob.
The accusations have sent shock waves through the hockey world, resonating all the way to the sport's biggest name, Wayne Gretzky. The Coyotes coach has not been implicated, but several media outlets, citing multiple sources close to the "Operation Slap Shot" investigation, have stated Gretzky's wife made nearly $500,000 in wagers over the past six weeks alone. The Great One claimed ignorance.
A black eye? Hall of Famer and Clarence resident Marcel Dionne called the allegations "worse than the lockout" for hockey's reputation.
It gets worse. At least six current NHL players are suspected of taking part in the gambling ring, which allegedly has gone on for about five years and took more than a thousand bets worth $1.7 million in a recent 40-day period. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newark Star-Ledger reported Los Angeles Kings center Jeremy Roenick was one of the players. The Star-Ledger also named Boston Bruins center Travis Green.
No assertions have been made that any player or Janet Jones-Gretzky bet on hockey. Authorities said the ring mostly dealt with football and basketball.
Ruff said he had no knowledge of any Sabre connections to the scandal.
"From my understanding, nobody in our organization is involved," Ruff said. "I haven't been given a lot of information, but there has been no indication that someone on our team is involved."
The stinging allegations aren't the first of their kind. The NHL has coped with several high-profile gambling imbroglios over the past decade:
*The father, an uncle and four half-brothers of Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore were accused of loan sharking at a Montreal casino. His father and one brother pleaded guilty in December 2004 of lesser charges.
*Federal authorities in August 2004 claimed Roenick paid more than $100,000 to a Florida company for sports betting tips. Then playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Roenick claimed he "shut it off cold turkey" after General Manager Bobby Clarke approached him out of concern.
*A 2004 Sports Illustrated report said Andy Van Hellemond stepped down as the NHL's director of officiating because he had asked his own officials for money to repay horse racing debts.
*All-Star winger Jaromir Jagr in 2003 admitted to running up a $500,000 Internet sports gambling debt.
*A Canadian judge in 1997 ordered Keith Tkachuk to pay a $200,000 civil judgment to an Edmonton man who claimed he gave the All-Star winger insider information for illegal football bets. The ruling eventually was overturned.
All of those cases, however, could pale in comparison to "Operation Slap Shot."
"It's worse than the lockout," Dionne said. "It would be absolutely devastating if the allegations are true. You have to wait until anybody is proven guilty, but I don't feel good about this at all."
Dionne considers Gretzky a good friend. They're fellow Hall of Famers and members of the exclusive 700-goal club. They're former Los Angeles Kings. They take part in fantasy hockey camps together. Dionne, as owner of Marcel Dionne Enterprises at the Boulevard Mall, proudly sells Gretzky memorabilia.
Dionne already is bracing for what may lurk around the corner. He claimed no insight into Gretzky's potential involvement (Gretzky has denied any knowledge of the gambling ring), but suggested nothing would surprise him.
The NHL on Wednesday hired the former federal prosecutor who led the Unabomber case to conduct an internal investigation on Tocchet and the gambling ring.
"By the time we're done with this investigation we'll be shaking our heads," Dionne said. "People will start ratting on more people. Reporters and everybody's digging now, and the NHL is involved.
"I guess the one good thing, even though they mentioned his wife by name, is they didn't mention [Wayne Gretzky] by name.
"In Canada this could be a total disaster. Wayne is bigger than big. The dirt's going to come out."
The NHL, unlike the National Football League, doesn't prohibit its players or staff from betting legally on all sports -- only hockey. There is, however, a policy on league or club personnel engaging in illegal activities, the punishment for which can range from fines to expulsion.
It's bad timing that the "Operation Slap Shot" story broke while NHL general managers were holding their annual meetings in a suburb of Las Vegas.
Not only is gambling tolerated in the NHL, but also it seems meshed in the sport's fabric.
It's easy to understand how natural-born competitors with significant disposable incomes -- paired with the tedium brought by months of travel -- would be drawn to wager on anything from poker to golf shots to basketball tournaments to fantasy pools.
"Guys have really competitive personalities," Sabres goalie Martin Biron said. "When you play a game of cards in the back of the plane or go for a round of golf, it just adds up to the competitiveness of everybody.
"It's something everybody doesn't even think twice about: 'Let's throw a dollar a hole on the golf course.' It's just to make it interesting. Everybody does the squares at the Super Bowl. Throw in $20, $50, whatever. Win a few, lose a few. Nobody's going to say that's wrong.
"But when it has to do with having an organized gambling ring, that's where it becomes troubling. That's where it becomes dangerous."
NHL clubs use gambling to raise money for their charities. The Sabres Foundation is holding "Aces & Blades," a casino night Feb. 25 at the Statler Towers. The event costs $100 to attend and includes food, drink, auctions and card games dealt by the players.
The Florida Panthers have scheduled a similar function this month called "Ice & Dice." The Calgary Flames last month held a charity Texas Hold 'em poker tournament featuring their players.
Many NHL cities have casinos in their vicinities. A proposed Pittsburgh Penguins arena would be built with slot machine profits.
"It's part of our culture, and not necessarily hockey," Ruff said. "There's nothing wrong with legal gambling . . . as long as it doesn't become a disease."
Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere and defenseman Teppo Numminen skated with Tocchet in Phoenix. Both were stunned at what they learned Tuesday. Authorities alleged Tocchet financed the operation, protecting against potential losses for two bookmakers operating in South Jersey and Philadelphia.
"It's definitely shocking what's been thrown out there," Briere said. "He was an example on and off the ice when I was there. I learned a lot from him how to handle myself around the dressing room and on the ice."
Said Numminen: "It came from nowhere. At first I really didn't believe what was going on. It's still tough to believe."
Numminen called the allegations "really scary." But as a veteran of 17 NHL seasons he insisted gambling hasn't gone overboard in the NHL.
He mentioned how each preseason NHL security officials warn players about the dangers of illicit gambling.
"The years I've been around I haven't seen [gambling] has increased," Numminen said. "It's always been there, but it's not like everybody does it. I don't see it being a problem around the rink."