Kovacevic: Take a shot already, Mario

| Friday, Oct. 26, 2012

One of these days, when we all run out of ideas to solve our city's crushing debt, our crumbling bridges and the speed at which little old ladies coast through our tunnels, we'll undoubtedly turn to Mario Lemieux for solutions.

Isn't that what we Pittsburghers do?

This is the man who's had a hat trick of rescuing the Penguins — from his drafting to buying the team out of bankruptcy to getting Consol Energy Center done — and you still hear people pleading with him to try again to buy the Pirates from Bob Nutting.

(Not happening. They're still very much not for sale.)

So hey, what's one more, Mario?

Save the NHL season for us!

Ask me, and it's actually well past time for the Penguins' ownership to take an active role in this ridiculous NHL lockout, which likely will see the first slice of the 82-game season wiped away Friday. And by ownership, I don't mean just Lemieux but also Ron Burkle.

No two individuals are more qualified to make an impact.

In Burkle's case, though the co-owner keeps a low profile, he swings a huge hammer. He's a billionaire who built his empire through growing a grocery chain in California. He's a sharp businessman who used to get directly involved in talks with those unions, almost universally commanding respect at the blue-collar level. And in case anyone's forgotten, he was the guy who went one-on-one in a room with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to put the finishing touch on the Consol deal.

Lemieux opened the door, and Burkle locked up the deal.

As Rendell told Trib Total Media last week: “In negotiating, you need somebody who can cut through the mess and focus on what will get a deal. Ron was excellent at that when we worked out the arena for the Penguins.”

That's how it could happen in this case, too.

Forget all the lawyerly stuff being discussed — except for the past seven days, of course — by the NHL and the players' union. When the owners are offering to pay 50 percent of total revenues and the players are offering to accept 50 percent, when the gap in the two most recent proposals is just $2.7 million per team, there's a deal to be made. It doesn't take a slick suit and a briefcase to see that.

What the situation demands is that someone steps in who's bigger in every way than either Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr, both of whom are big in ego only.

That's 66.

No one in hockey — not even Wayne Gretzky — could command greater respect in this specific setting than what Lemieux could deliver by walking into one of those meetings. Not with his unique background as someone who made his fortune as a Hall of Fame player, who adds to it as an owner and who once did both at the same time.

Think the players would hold the same suspicions of Lemieux that they do with Bettman?

It hasn't happened yet, of course. Neither Lemieux nor Burkle is known to have attended any of the negotiating sessions. Even at the Board of Governors' meeting to call the lockout last month, the Penguins were represented by president David Morehouse, COO Travis Williams and general manager Ray Shero.

The owners who have been involved in labor talks have been those of wealthy franchises in Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, as well as perennially poor-mouthing Calgary and Minnesota. The latter is a real hoot, given the $196 million the Wild pledged this summer to tag-team free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Gee, small wonder the owners want cuts in existing contracts.

What kind of voice do these people have?

What kind of credibility?

Bettman fines any owners who don't stay silent publicly through these talks, so this isn't a matter of Lemieux speaking up. It's a matter of showing up.

Not just for the well-being of the NHL but also for his team.

These Penguins must compete for the Stanley Cup every year that they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their employ, and that cause already has been hurt enough by early playoff exits the past three years. Crosby is 25, Malkin 26. Even if Malkin ends up joining Crosby in signing a long-term deal — and you can bet on that — these are their prime years.

Did you know Lemieux was 26 the last time he played for the Cup in 1992?

On that count alone, it would be devastating for the Penguins to lose this season.

Look, Lemieux is no negotiator, not really a board-room guy, either. Anyone who recalls his disdain for spending countless hours on Grant Street during the bankruptcy a decade ago can attest.

But all he needs to do here, as with the Consol deal, is open the door for Burkle.

Consider it more of an assist than a save.

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