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Kovacevic: Penguins, Bettman best buds

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 10:52 p.m.
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the press before returning to negotiations with the NHLPA in New York Dec. 5, 2012. NHL owners and players met face-to-face again on Wednesday in an attempt to broker a deal to end their bitter dispute that threatens to wipe out the season. (Reuters)
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the press before returning to negotiations with the NHLPA in New York Dec. 5, 2012. NHL owners and players met face-to-face again on Wednesday in an attempt to broker a deal to end their bitter dispute that threatens to wipe out the season. (Reuters)

NEW YORK — As the narrative has turned in this interminable, indefensible NHL lockout, the Penguins suddenly are the good guys in some grand, mutinous adventure.

Notice that?

They're being cast as the ones swooping down from the clouds to save the day. The ones with Ron Burkle, the billionaire owner with the common touch who has restored sanity to the process. The ones with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby riding white horses of their own, albeit from different sides.

It's truly fantastic stuff.

Penguins vs. Gary Bettman.

Penguins vs. Jeremy Jacobs, the Bruins' cheapskate owner.

Penguins vs. … I don't know, Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom.

The whole picture seems too wholesome to be true, right?

Well, not exactly.

In all seriousness, the positive stuff about the Penguins' role in what I see shaping up as breakthrough week here is all legit. And I'd be the last one to knock it after criticizing all concerned for doing so little beforehand.

Burkle really has been the buzz of this round of talks that began with eight hours Tuesday and rolled into another marathon Wednesday. Players were praising him as if he'd KO'd an Islanders goalie with one punch.

Lemieux really has been tugging strings behind the scenes, from testing other teams for alliances to straying from his norm and showing up on the national stage when the sport needs him.

Crosby, always above and beyond in any walk of life, really has been prodding on his own fronts, even flying to Phoenix last week to urge a group of players training there to keep the faith. The Kid's been doing more calling and texting than a dozen pre-teens combined.

Good for them.

And good for team president David Morehouse, COO Travis Williams and GM Ray Shero for accompanying them to make for a tour de force — volume and voice — unmatched by any team at these talks.

But it's the rest of that narrative that's a little off, based on a few puzzle pieces I've been able to assemble here.

Rewind to early summer.

That's when Bettman and the owners began laying out their wishes for this labor agreement as well as plotting a course to achieve it. You know the first part: 50/50 split of revenues, all that. You probably know the second, too, if you've paid attention to the same five to six owners Bettman had been bringing to every round of talks. All of them were hard-liners, led by the especially intransigent Jacobs.

The Penguins weren't wild about the plan but neither were they pounding desks. Fact is, they'd benefit, too, if those hard-liners succeeded.

But they didn't. Just before Thanksgiving, talks broke off completely when Bettman and his men bolted out of a meeting after just 10 minutes. They were furious at three flimsy proposals made by union chief Donald Fehr, two of which looked like they cost a quarter at Kinko's, the other verbal.

The lockout hit its low.

So did Bettman.

Make no mistake: Part of his plan always was to play at least part of a season. No matter the posturing, no commissioner wants to be connected to two completely lost seasons. That's not a legacy. That's an epitaph.

He and the owners had believed, albeit privately and tentatively, that the union would crack by Thanksgiving. And when it didn't, he asked for “a few days” of zero contact between the sides. It was a bizarre idea to put forth in what should have been a dire time, but he needed to regroup.

Enter the Penguins. Smartly sensing the situation, Burkle reached out to Bettman.

Bettman hadn't fully shut them out before this, but he hoped to stick by Jacobs and Co. as long as he could for all they'd contributed and because he'd already won one lockout by being stubborn.

Now he was listening.

The other dynamic: Bettman had done plenty to help Burkle, Lemieux and the Penguins, from pushing hard for Consol Energy Center to landing the Winter Classic and NHL Draft.

He knew he could expect help.

It's an odd dichotomy, for sure, but the timing and mutual needs were perfect fits. No team is better positioned to lead the way now than the one with the biggest stars, biggest local TV ratings, endless sellouts and, above all that, the one man guaranteed never to see a door slam in his face. No one on the league's side, not the commissioner or his deputies, certainly no other owner, can come close to the clout offered by Lemieux.

Sad to say, but the Penguins might be Bettman's last, best hope.

Think Lemieux flew up here because he thought there might be some small chance he might play some small role?

No way. That happened at Bettman's behest.

Better question: Still think the Penguins are Bettman's enemy in this?

Think again.

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