ShareThis Page

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.