TURIN, Italy -- It's been a rough few days, so you can't blame Wayne Gretzky for wanting to get out of Dodge. A two-week road trip during the Olympic break might do the guy some good, you know, until everything cools off back in North America.
But please, Almighty Great One, for your country, for the sake of these Winter Games, stay home.
You couldn't help but cringe as reports trickled out about the alleged gambling ring involving his associate coach, Rick Tocchet, and his wife, Janet Jones. Such scandals take on a life of their own. They get ugly. Investigators start digging. Reporters start working the phones. Word starts leaking out.
In no time, an international hero falls from grace.
Gretzky hasn't fallen yet, but you can't help but believe that's where he's headed. He repeatedly denied any role in the wagers, sounding emphatic the way Bill Clinton did when he insisted he did not have sex with that woman. In fairness, we should believe Gretzky until proved otherwise.
He always seemed much more of a hockey man than a betting man. The problem is we never know these days. It makes us question how well we really understand our neighbors. We've become familiar with Gretzky, the greatest player ever and a gracious and classy person for most of his Hall of Fame career.
But do we really know him? Do we really know Michael Jordan?
Cincinnati thought it knew Pete Rose, and many swallowed his lies for more than a decade before he came clean about gambling. Wayne Gretzky is no Pete Rose, thank goodness. He doesn't have the same history, but he has shamelessly bent the truth in the name of promoting the NHL.
You can't help but be suspicious now, especially after reports suggested Gretzky already was caught fibbing. He claimed he had no knowledge of Tocchet's connection to the bookies but apparently was caught on wiretaps talking to Tocchet about the case and trying to ensure his wife wasn't implicated.
Gretzky knew. He had to know. Heck, it was his job as managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes to know. Tocchet was his close friend and confidant, the man he selected to coach the Coyotes while the Great One attended his mother's funeral. Assistant coach Barry Smith knew. So did General Manager Mike Barnett, who apparently looked no further than his own bench when placing his Super Bowl wager.
Even if Gretzky's telling the truth about himself, he is guilty of using poor judgment. He should have straightened out Tocchet, fired him if necessary, before it was too late. He should have made sure his general manager acted like one. He should have kept his wife away from the checkbook. He should have responded like hockey's greatest ambassador rather than a shady businessman posing as an outsider.
If this is how Gretzky does business, what's he doing in the NHL?
Yeah, I know, people bet on the Super Bowl every year. But we're not talking about office pools or Texas Hold 'em in the back of the team charter. If nothing else, this scandal punctuates how little respect the absurdly wealthy have for their money.
The issue here isn't whether Gretzky was gambling or whether Jones treated $500,000 the way we do nickels. It's how Gretzky's presence in Turin will turn the Olympics on its ear. The Winter Games will no longer be about the five rings. It will become a three-ring circus with the executive director of Hockey Canada sticking his head into the mouth of the lion.
Remember, he caused a ruckus in Salt Lake City in 2002 after inventing a controversy. Gretzky whined how it was Canada against the world, as if the world really cared. He moaned about Americans even though he made most of his money in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York. What are the chances he'll become the center of attention again?
You might say they're slightly better than a coin flip.
The international media is practically salivating over his arrival. Gretzky should take one for the team and do what's right. He doesn't need to be here. He helped put together the Canadian Olympic team, but now his work is done. There's nothing left for him to do but cheer for his countrymen from afar, which would relieve NBC of turning its cameras to him every 15 seconds.
Gretzky's presence isn't going to lead Canada to its second straight gold medal, but it will take away attention from some 2,600 athletes who only get one crack at the spotlight every four years. There are some terrific stories out there waiting to be told, but you can expect many will be pushed aside while Gretzky's here.
Unfortunately, his problem is perception. There would be an underlying assumption of guilt if he stayed in the United States, which could further tarnish his reputation. If there's one thing he understands, it's his image. It has taken a beating in recent days.
And if he shows up here, it could get worse.