Penguins' power play brings deal closer

NEW YORK -- The players emerged from the room around midnight and scurried down the hotel escalator past reporters, unwilling to share much, if anything.

The smiles on some of their faces, however, suggested it wasn’t a bad day at all.

As one player would later share via text message to ESPN.com, "There was certainly traction. But I don’t want to say more."

That cautious optimism -- the key word being cautious -- was on full display when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA outside counsel Steve Fehr stood shoulder to shoulder in a joint media availability after the marathon sessions, Fehr calling it possibly the best day in the entire process, while Daly nodded in agreement.

But other than that, both sides were tight-lipped. Like a pitcher working on a no-hitter through six innings, it’s too early to get too excited.

I’d be ready to say this, however: I’m willing to bet there’s a far greater chance of hockey this season than not after Tuesday’s developments.

At the center of this fragile momentum is the presence of the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by reclusive billionaire owner Ron Burkle, who shined brightly in talks Tuesday, according to sources, the players receptive to his tone.

Burkle’s first appearance in labor talks comes at a critical time in the process, with both sides having tried nearly everything else -- mediation, large group meetings, small group meetings, etc.

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered to bench himself from this meeting as long as NHLPA counterpart Donald Fehr did as well, it was an opportunity for Burkle to enter the picture and do his thing.

Burkle over the past couple of weeks had conversed with Sidney Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, and fellow Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and to some degree Crosby, as well, as the group tried to find common ground among the obvious, divisive issues between both sides of the labor impasse.

Talk about a Penguins power play.

Lemieux, in town for Wednesday’s board of governors meeting, was spotted in the hotel lobby along with Brisson and others after the meeting Tuesday night, once again underlying all of their common interest in the cause.

Crosby was certainly happy to see Burkle get added to Tuesday’s owners-players meeting, having much respect for the Penguins owner and certainly the hope that his inclusion would bring a moderate voice to the owners’ side at a time when players were growing weary of hearing from hard-liners such as Jeremy Jacobs (who was nevertheless still in the room Tuesday).

Burkle’s track record in his private business life suggests that he was just the man to try to find middle ground. When the Pittsburgh arena deal nearly fell through, Burkle’s involvement helped save the project. His awards from labor groups in California underline his ability to negotiate fairly.

Combined with a similar desire shared by Crosby to do everything possible to save a season, the Penguins owner and his superstar captain put their best feet forward Tuesday in an attempt to push things back in the right direction.

Sources on both sides Tuesday night described for the very first time seeing a real desire to try to get a deal done. But they were also cautious in saying the early traction in talks could easily combust once again, just as it did last month when four consecutive days of talks raised hopes but ultimately crashed in a fiery Friday session.

Of course, that was then and this is now. We’re in December. Both sides are feeling the immense heat of a season hanging in the balance. Both sides are keenly aware when you talk to them that this is potentially the last shot at getting something done before the union ramps up talk of decertification and the owners threaten to blow up the entire season.

And perhaps, all along, the league was waiting until this stage of the process to finally, finally show a willingness to play ball on its numerous demands in the player contracting rights. Neither side would divulge specifics late Tuesday night, but I’d be shocked if the league didn’t finally relent on some contracting rights demands. That would certainly go a long way toward making the players eager to make a deal.

I’m always weary of judging the success of bargaining talks by looking at the length of the meeting. But in this case, Tuesday’s late-night session is indeed a sign that we still have a chance for hockey this season.

The same couldn’t be said just a week ago.