Thursday March 8th, 2007

The end is in sight for the Penguins. And believe it or not, that's a good thing.

Monday's announcement by team owner Mario Lemieux that the talks between the Penguins and state and local officials about a new arena were at an impasse was mistaken by many fans as a Doomsday decree. That was it. End of the line. So long, Sid. Time to commiserate over a couple of Iron City Lights with your new buddies in Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec City.

You can understand the reaction. The last time hockey fans heard "impasse" was just prior to the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season. Hardly the sort of word that warms the spirit.

But this is different. Despite their gloomy veneer, Mario's threats should be seen for what they were -- the storm before the calm. A last-minute power play. A bargaining ploy, and nothing more.

Sorry, Kansas City. You're out of luck, Vegas. The Pens are staying put in Pittsburgh.

Talks were set to resume on Thursday, March 8 in Philadelphia, and it's very clear that there's a deal to be made here. From all indications, it's very close to the one that's currently on the table.

Word is that the proposal put forth by the state at the last meeting is much better than the one offered when the two sides previously met. Nice of them to wait until the end of February to do that, but it's all part of the process, just like Mario's loaded words. Each side is simply looking to make the best deal it can.

Step back from the emotions and see the situation as it is. The reality is that this is long past being about a new building and who's going to pay for it. This has become a political football that no one benefits from dropping.

That doesn't mean it can't happen, of course. As we saw last week when the Edmonton Oilers decided to do the unthinkable and part company with Ryan Smyth, the difference between resolution and dissolution doesn't have to be an insurmountable sum of money. Sometimes it takes just one side saying, "That's enough."

Honestly, that could be either side in this case. The Pens have been more than patient, waiting years while government officials dithered as the team's home became the league's oldest and least financially viable barn. At this point, packing up the vans may seem more palatable than one more in an endless round of talks.

And Pennsylvania officials, who've already chipped in massive sums of money to provide new buildings for the more popular Steelers and Pirates, have limits to their largesse. Voters are split on the merits of giving hundreds of millions of dollars to support private enterprises like sports teams. Most would prefer that potholes be fixed, or extra police and firefighters get hired. And it's those voters, not the teams, who will pass judgment on those politicians.

So it's no sure thing. But odds are this deal will get done simply because it's good business.

Despite their fact-finding missions to KC and Vegas, the Penguins don't want to go anywhere. When it comes to this type of negotiation, the threat of packing up their pucks and playing somewhere else is the only hammer the team holds. But team officials understand the level of support they have within the community. Starting from scratch in another town, trying to build up a season ticket base, working on broadcast deals, and simply selling the game in the compressed time frame of a couple of months would be a massively impractical undertaking.

Governor Ed Rendell, who's leading the negotiations on the other side of the table, has nothing to lose. Unable to run for a third team, he's simply working on a legacy project. But Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl has an election around the corner. He either gets the job done for the city, or he risks running a campaign as the can't-do guy who lost the exciting, up-and-coming Penguins of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin over a couple of million bucks.

And the league? Yeah, it's got a stake in this, too. Chances are the NHL is going to be a bigger player as this thing wraps up.

Gary Bettman can't force the Penguins to accept a deal they're not happy with in Pittsburgh. He can achieve the same end, however, by blocking any potential move. He's already played that card once when the guy on the other side was Jim Balsillie, the Blackberry billionaire who was in line to buy the club until told by Bettman that he wouldn't be allowed to pick up and leave.

But the Pens are still owned by Lemieux. That's a very different dancing partner. Bettman won't play hardball with an icon of the sport, but he will do everything in his power to keep the 40-year-old franchise in place by brokering an equitable deal. The last thing the league needs is Crosby, its marquee star, moving to a hockey backwater.

So take heart, Pittsburgh. A deal is just around the corner. With time winding down, both sides can only win by reaching an agreement.

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