Friday, Nov. 26, 2004 | 9:39 a.m.
Las Vegas Wranglers co-owner Charles Davenport and general manager Glen Gulutzan said they weighed everything about Billy Tibbetts before signing the fiery right winger to a contract before the ECHL team played at Bakersfield on Nov. 18.
Tibbetts, 30, has an innate feel for the game, an ability to gel quickly with new teammates and make many new fans just as rapidly. A 6-foot-2, 215-pound bruiser, he also has a hair-trigger temper.
That notorious behavior continued in Bakersfield, where he cross-checked Condors left winger Todd Alexander in his face to earn a five-minute major and match penalty in his Wranglers debut.
The ECHL suspended Tibbetts for 10 games for his infraction, and he is eligible to return to the Wranglers on Dec. 10 at Idaho. He might make his home debut in a Las Vegas uniform against Greenville at the Orleans Arena on Dec. 14.
Tibbetts is also a convicted rapist.
"Obviously, the stories about him throughout hockey are well-known," Davenport said. "How much truth there is to all the stories is a matter of a bit of argument. We decided that he is a good player who could help us.
"Like everyone we bring into the organization, we aren't here to judge people on how they live their lives. He's obviously made mistakes and paid a price."
Gulutzan, who is also the Wranglers' coach, adamantly confirmed that the Wranglers oragnization did its homework on Tibbetts, that it is very fan sensitive and does not condone his past.
"It's nothing we want to be associated with," Gulutzan said. "It's a terrible past. At the same time, we don't discriminate. His past isn't that of a role model for anybody, but it's there. He's free. He's done his time. We'll just judge him from this day forward."
Gulutzan also said he would not have added Tibbetts to the forward-depleted Vegas roster if he did not plan to keep the Boston native for the rest of the 2004-05 season.
"Otherwise, I'd get rid of him today if I didn't hope that he'd stay with the team for the rest of the year," Gulutzan said. "The decision was a group decision, from the owners to the coaching staff to the players."
With former NHL All-Star Scott Gomez now playing in Anchorage, Gulutzan said Tibbetts is easily among the top three players in the ECHL.
"He's a helluva hockey player and our team felt that we could win hockey games with him in the lineup," Gulutzan said. "If that proves to be true here, we've made the right decision. If not, then I guess we've made the wrong one."
When the Wranglers left Monday for Louisiana, for the start of a grueling 10-game road trip, Tibbetts, who had just received notice of his suspension, bolted for San Diego, where he has a girlfriend.
Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
"I know people are always going to judge me, fairly or unfairly, on what I've been arrested for," Tibbetts told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 2001, "whether they know the story or not."
On March 30, 1994, when Tibbetts was 17, he pleaded guilty to raping a 15-year-old girl at an outdoor drinking party in Scituate, Mass., in 1992, the Philadelphia Daily News and other papers have extensively reported.
According to the Post-Gazette, the victim got drunk at the party and passed out, then she was taken behind a warehouse and sexually assaulted by Tibbetts.
Under Massachusetts law, Tibbetts was an adult at the time of the crime. He pleaded three counts of rape to one as part of a plea bargain.
Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Courtland Matters called the crime "brutal," the Daily News reported, but Matters did not send Tibbetts to jail.
Matters sentenced him to a 3- to 5-year prison term but suspended the sentence, placing him on probation for four years instead.
A month later, Tibbetts received a suspended sentence of six months in jail and 18 months' probation, and fined $625, upon being convicted on charges of assault and battery on a police officer, disorderly conduct and intimidating a witness.
The Daily News reported that Tibbetts had threatened to kill a police officer and his family.
And on July 12, 1995, in District Court in Hingham, Mass., Tibbetts was arraigned on charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a BB gun. He had allegedly shot a friend in the back.
According to the Daily News, he was convicted and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. He had also violated the terms of his probation for the rape conviction, for failing to leave social gatherings where his victim was present.
Tibbetts served 39 1/2 months for those probation violations. He was paroled by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections on Oct. 29, 1999, and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat a pack of NHL franchises to sign him as a free agent less than six months later.
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said he was eager to obtain Tibbetts.
"I think that's a great story," he told the Post-Gazette in March 2001. "That kid faced so much adversity, did his time (and) came back after 3 1/2 years. To find himself in the NHL is a great accomplishment."
Tibbetts said he wasn't proud of his history.
"I've had to live every day with the knowledge that I was convicted of rape," Tibbetts told the Daily News. "I was kind of a wild kid. I've tried to mature as an adult since I was released from prison."
He endeared himself to the Pittsburgh crowd with his skills and toughness in 29 games for the Penguins in 2000-01 and 33 in 2001-02. When he was dealt to Philadelphia at the 2002 trading deadline he expected a public backlash.
"I assume there are also going to be some people who don't care one way or the other," Tibbetts told the Daily News. "Everybody has skeletons in their closet and mine are out of the closet. I have nothing to hide.
"I haven't gotten totally past what's happened, myself personally, or publicly, so I just don't know what to say. I can't speak for the city of Philadelphia. Hopefully, they'll accept me positively and just give me a chance to be a positive member of society."
As a Flyer, Tibbetts regularly attended anger-management meetings that the club arranged for him. He accumulated one assist and 69 penalty minutes in nine games with Philly. The following season, in 2002-03, he played in 11 games with the New York Rangers.
He scored 18 goals, and racked up 266 penalty minutes, in 40 games with the San Diego Gulls last season. But he was released by the Gulls two weeks ago, after scoring four times in seven games, for reportedly violating a zero-tolerance policy.
The San Diego Union-Tribune also noted that behavioral issues resulted in Tibbetts getting cut from Springfield and Houston of the American Hockey League last season.
"I don't want to get into details," Gulls coach Martin St. Amour told the Union-Tribune. "Let's just leave it at zero tolerance and that we waived him."
Gulutzan said he was responsible for playing Tibbetts so quickly after the Wranglers got him, in an emotional game that wasn't the best of circumstances for Tibbetts.
"Before the game, he told me he wasn't mentally ready to play," Gulutzan said. "He enjoyed San Diego, and they enjoyed him. He was distraught and he hadn't skated in four days. There was a lot of pressure on him, and (Condors) were coming after him.
"It was a hard-fought game in Bakersfield, and he was trying to impress his new teammates. He's an emotional guy, and he let his emotions get to him. We've talked about the way he has to play. Hopefully, he can conduct himself accordingly. It's up to him."
Davenport, who is also a partial owner of the Fresno Falcons, lives in San Diego and often watched Tibbetts skate for the Gulls last season and into November.
Davenport said he didn't want to try to guess how people in Las Vegas would react to Tibbetts playing for the Wranglers, but that he was accepted in San Diego and, again, turned out to be a fan favorite.
"He's likable, works hard and is as pleasant a person as you will meet," Davenport said. "We're giving the guy a chance. If he screws it up, he has nobody to blame but himself. We believe in him and hope the fans of Las Vegas do, too."