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Labor Log: Analysis of the Crosby-Burkle dynamic in next NHL talks.

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Sidney Crosby cannot end the NHL lockout by winning a puck battle in the corner, sending a pass to an open area of ice only he sees, or ripping one low and to the left of a goalie that tends to cheat high and right.

Arguably the world’s finest hockey player, Crosby is not in his natural element when trading gear for a tailored suit so he can talk about the business of hockey with NHL owners. He prefers jeans and T-shirt.

Tuesday in New York, though, a suit-wearing Crosby could do something Pittsburghers have come to expect from their Penguins franchise stars, something that can turn him into an icon.

This should be his shot at saving hockey

The NHLPA has not yet announced which players will attend a Tuesday meeting between owners and players, one that will not include commissioner Gary Bettman and executive director Donald Fehr.

Crosby has to be in the room.

No player is better suited to be in that room when owners, some of them fresh voices to these negotiations, walk in and take their seats.

No player has ever been better suited for a meeting like the one Tuesday.

••••• 

 Mario Lemieux was a Western Pennsylvania sports treasure for leading the woebegone Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in the early 1990s. He was bathed in a sympathetic light when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in late 1992 and a humanizing tint when he and wife Nathalie agonized through son Austin’s nearly fatal birth in 1997.

Winning on the ice, against cancer and the chance to raise his only boy shaped Lemieux’s narrative.

His purchase of the Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999, a move that kept the team in Pittsburgh, cemented his legacy as an icon – not just locally, but in the hockey world.

That made it official that no one person would ever be so connected to his team as Lemieux is to the Penguins. Literally.

He now owns them.

He owns Crosby, technically, but theirs is a relationship that transcends business. They share more than the ability to talk about hockey on a level few can conceive, than a captaincy link, than the town of Sewickley, where Lemieux lives and Crosby is building a house.

They share an eerie narrative.

Chronic back problems and cancer robbed Lemieux of extending his prime. He played in only 172 games, not counting 55 playoff games, from the start of the 1990-91 season through 1995, a shortened campaign he sat out. He was 25 around the start of that stretch.

Concussion symptoms and this lockout are robbing Crosby of the start of his prime. He has played in only 66 games, not counting six playoff games, from the start of the 2010-11 season. He is 25 now.

Lemieux and Crosby are not the only NHL players to have had significant chunks of their best years eliminated because of circumstances they could not control.

They are just, possibly, the best of that group.

So, they share that.

They also share Ron Burkle.

 •••••

Perhaps there is no more mysterious important figure in the history of Pittsburgh’s rich sporting history.

Lemieux became an icon when his ownership group purchased the Penguins out of bankruptcy, but that never would have happened had a friend not introduced him to Burkle, a California grocery magnate and, also, a billionaire.

Burkle had no interest in hockey, no connection to Pittsburgh.

However, Burkle took a liking to Lemieux upon their first meeting almost 15 years ago. He liked Lemieux as a person, and he loved his story – former player, trying to recoup his owed money and preserve his legacy by keeping his team in town.

That was worth the millions he invested into the Lemieux ownership group.

Pittsburghers barely knew Burkle’s surname before 2005, when he played the pivotal role in working with former Gov. Ed Rendell to secure funding for what would become Consol Energy Center.

The day that deal was made public, Burkle stood to the side of a stage, dressed in his traditional jeans and black Polo shirt. He was nearly unrecognizable, certainly not somebody that anybody would confuse with a multibillionaire who knew President Bill Clinton and Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger.

Think about that.

Burkle’s phone contact list includes “Clinton” and “Jagger.”

Good luck keeping him quiet at this meeting Tuesday if you are Jeremy Jacobs, the recently vilified owner of the Boston Bruins.

No owner will try to diminish Burkle, a veteran of real labor negotiations – not ones between owners and athletes.

Burkle earned his initial money making deals with California grocery unions. He knows there is an art to making a deal, and that the colors are not black and white or the green of money.

Burkle will speak Tuesday, and everybody on the owners’ side will listen because he commands that level of respect as a businessman.

 •••••

Good luck preventing Crosby from speaking freely, too.

He wants to be in the room. Crosby knows this is a big game, maybe a deciding one if the NHL is to end this dispute and get back to where it belongs, which is on the ice.

That much is clear from anybody who has had contact with him this weekend. He has tried to see both sides. He leans the way of players, sure; but he knows there is a peace to restore, and a bigger win to be gained.

He knows history will not judge him by individual accomplishments, but what he does for a team.

At some point the NHL and its Players’ Association must remember they are a team in this lucrative and competitive sports business landscape.

Crosby sees the big picture, and he is willing to share the spotlight in order to achieve success. That has worked out for him in the past.

Jonathan Toews was the Outstanding Player for Canada at the 2010 Olympics, Evgeni Malkin the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs a year before.

Who was most often photographed draped in the Canadian flat and lifting the Cup?

That would be Crosby, who has a knack for elevating his performance in crunch time, especially when he has help from somebody that can play on his level, somebody he trusts.

In a conference room where players are not built to star Crosby cannot play on an owner’s level, but in Burkle he has a partner he can trust.

He and Burkle are not as close as he and Lemieux, but they are tight. There is no animosity, and it is easy to see how Crosby and Burkle can relate beyond owner and player.

They are deeply private people often being pulled in many directions because of their statures. They know what it is like to have every action scrutinized. They know what it is like for people to depend on them.

They get each other.

Their relationship is a model one for billionaire owners and millionaire players.

••••• 

Few reporters have interviewed Burkle. He does not permit it.

A few years ago this reporter spoke with some people that know him, have worked with him – and what stands out from those conversations is that Burkle, whatever anybody thinks, is an equally fierce businessman and friend.

Getting involved in this NHL labor process is good business for Burkle – not because his Penguins are a moderate in this dispute, and not because he knows enough about the issues to take over the process from the hardliners.

Burkle is not going to negotiate this labor deal with Crosby.

He knows, as Rendell said, that the way to do a deal is for each side to make some concessions.

Players and owners need to concede that there is not evil involved on either side, that history is the past, that some good things happened over the last seven years, and that moving forward things can be different between owners and players.

Burkle could show all of that when he walks into that room dressed like a player would on an off-day – jeans and a Polo shirt – then warmly embraces arguably the best hockey player on the planet.

By being in the room Tuesday, Burkle would give Crosby a chance to take his shot at showing there can be, if not harmony, something better than the distrust and resentment that has dominated this labor war.

••••• 

The NHL will get what it deserves in the end, and maybe this league does not deserve much.

What it will get Tuesday is about a dozen people in a room, just talking things out.

That is good.

Only the inclusion of Crosby can make it great.

He has stayed on message during this lockout, let himself be used for the good of his union, and educated himself on the details more than any great player in modern history.

He has earned a chance to make a play, to create something out of nothing.

He might do it, too, because he’ll have the backing of his owner.

Crosby wants to take a shot at saving hockey, and a team cannot keep its best player on the bench for a shootout. That never works.  

Just like Lemieux, never the favorite to win the 1999 bankruptcy battle, the odds now are against Crosby.

He may shoot wide. He may be denied.

Just like Lemieux, Crosby has a guy named Burkle on his side. And in a labor dispute Burkle is more outstanding that Toews, more valuable than Malkin.

Burkle is the Penguins owner that can have a magnificent impact. He will not treat players like spoiled kids.

He has too much respect for the Kid he knows quite well.

Crosby knows that, and the reason he must be in the room with Burkle is because Crosby, more than any player, knows what Tuesday really is…

An opening.

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Author: Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi is the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has been called many names, but “Rossi” is the one to which he most often responds. He joined the Trib in November 2002 and was promoted to the columnist role in July 2014. Previously, he had covered the NHL’s Penguins (2006-14) and MLB’s Pirates (2006), while also working on beats associated with the NFL’s Steelers (2005-06) and the NCAA’s Pitt (2004-06). He has won national and local awards for his coverage of youth concussions and athletes’ charities. Also, he is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association executive committee and the Pittsburgh chapter chair. Raised in Crafton and Green Tree and a graduate of West Virginia University, he has covered a Super Bowl, All-Star Games in baseball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, including the Cup Final twice. Oh, and his sports reporting has led him to brief chats with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; so that’s pretty cool. He is a regular contributor on TV with WPXI, Root Sports Pittsburgh and TSN. Also, he is the authorized biographer of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

Comments

  1. Jill Balmer says:

    Great article. You outdid yourself, Mr. Rossi!

  2. djinwestpa says:

    Great piece of writing, Rob. Thanks.

    Now if only these guys can get this thing settled!

  3. M says:

    “Who was most often photographed draped in the Canadian flat and lifting the Cup?”

    And by flat I’m assuming you mean flag?

  4. Pat4Pgh says:

    Wow! What a great preview to what might happen tomorrow. Two giants in their field who prefer not to be the focalpoint may have an opportunity to bring hockey back onto the ice. Loved the construction of the piece…!

  5. nate83 says:

    Rob

    Great post. You are quickly becoming must reading for me when I see you write something. I really enjoy your work. Thanks.

  6. Earl Boncroff says:

    That was really long.

  7. Kyle says:

    Impressive writing. This is an interesting read.

  8. John V says:

    Rob,
    I follow you as much as possible but linked this article from Yahoo sports Puck Daddy.
    This is the best article I’ve read on the lock to date.
    I’m getting very frustrated with the whiners and this article lays it out and speaks volumes about the real sports town.
    Pittsburgh.
    Thank you
    John

  9. rdubb says:

    very good article, it was a good read and a must read for ANY TRUE HOCKEY FAN. i really hope one thing is true that you said in the article, and that is in regards to Jacobs not being able to keep Burkle quit. It would be great if any of the new owners would speak up, especially Burkle becasue of his past dealings with unions, & if Jacobs does try to any of them quite, that they tell him “shut the heck up”, it is now there time to speak, that he lead the league in one lost year already and he is close to doing that again, and that’s a NO-NO.
    Hard line fans will be back, and anyone who says different is lying, but the NHL will loose all those new fans that they worked so hard in getting these past 6 years. HRR will be down, and will be down greatly, and both sides need to realize this…
    Enough of my blabbing, good article

  10. George says:

    Rossi:

    Excellent work; Labor – Management peace can’t get here soon enough. Jeremy Jacobs is the second coming of Bill Wirtz, spendthrift extraordinaire. Hopefully today’s meeting will be more than an ice breaker, and the presence of Burkle, Crosby (and others) can get things moving in a positive direction.

  11. RedGrace says:

    Wow.

    Amazing, comprehensive writing. After reading this, I can’t help but be a little hopeful for today’s meeting, despite all the pessimism that has overtaken me over the course of this horrible lockout.

    And I agree with nate83. Your stories and blog posts also are must reads for me. The Tribune-Review is my go-to source for Pens (and lately, lockout) news. Keep up the great work.

 
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