Burkle running Pens' power play

| Sunday, March 2, 2008

When the Penguins announced their new arena deal last March, a reporter asked enigmatic co-owner Ron Burkle if he was going to assume a higher profile.

After all, Burkle had been the Penguins' key player in clinching the deal.

"I'm in jeans," Burkle said, cryptically. "I'm going to fade away right now."

With that, the 91st-richest man in America (according to Forbes Magazine) bolted the room.

But he did not fade away, not by a long shot.

Burkle, a 55-year-old Beverly Hills billionaire, has become increasingly involved in the franchise he helped save from disbandment in 1999, when he delivered a last-minute, $20 million assist to Mario Lemieux's group.

Less than a month after last year's arena deal was announced, Burkle's hand-picked lead man in the push for a new playing facility, David Morehouse, was promoted to team president.

Burkle rarely hung around the team in his early years as Lemieux's partner, despite being the lead investor. He seemed disinterested. That changed when the Penguins won the 2005 NHL Draft lottery and the rights to Sidney Crosby. Within months, ownership had rubber-stamped a free-agent spending binge -- ill-fated, as it turned out -- in which the club committed nearly $50 million to five players.

For Crosby's home debut, Burkle saw to it that Christina Aguilera fly in to sing the national anthem at Mellon Arena.

Burkle never has attended many home games, but is an increasingly frequent presence on the road. He made it a point to travel to Marian Hossa's debut Thursday in Boston, where he watched with Morehouse and Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer from a private box.

A day earlier, Burkle arranged for Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to take a private flight to Boston to join their new team.

None of this speaks of a disinterested owner, nor does the growing suspicion that Penguins ownership played a decisive role in the stunning acquisition of Hossa just before Tuesday's 3 p.m. trade deadline.

I probably heaped too much credit on general manager Ray Shero's plate, though he deserves his share. From what I've heard and deduced in the days since, I have to believe TSN analyst Darren Dreger was onto something when he wrote about how the trade went down.

"I can tell you what happened," Dreger wrote on TSN's web site. "There is a sense that at some point midday, word came from above putting a bit of pressure on the Penguins to say, look, Sidney Crosby is coming back. Is it going to be good enough to finish this year with Tyler Kennedy and Colby Armstrong on his wing• Ownership said, 'No, that's not good enough; go out and do something.' "

Everything we knew of Shero before 3 p.m. Tuesday screamed against his executing such a dramatic deal. At the very least, you have to believe ownership -- read: Burkle and Lemieux -- gave him a hard nudge to get Hossa and told him not to worry about the financial implications.

Heavily involved ownership isn't always a good thing, but in this case, if you're a Pittsburgh sports fan, you have to be thrilled. Here is an owner with deep pockets, aggressively chasing a championship.

Make no mistake: The Penguins will try to sign Hossa and will spend to the NHL's cap limit next season and for the foreseeable future. That's what a new arena and a man reportedly worth $3.5 billion will get you.

Not that the Penguins are assured of retaining Hossa, or of keeping their core intact forever. As in the NFL, players must sometimes be jettisoned for cap reasons.

Thankfully, Burkle will never be Mark Cuban yelling at officials or George Steinbrenner publicly ripping coaches and players. He hates publicity.

But, like Cuban and Steinbrenner, he loves winning. Burkle's business sense is as keen as Crosby's hockey sense, as evidenced by his long history of presiding over highly successful mega deals.

Time will tell if the Hossa trade is one of them.

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