Penguins talks put Bettman in potentially ugly pickle

The Pittsburgh Penguins have put local and state officials on what amounts to "double-secret probation" while they look around for a new place for the star-laden team to play hockey next season.

At least that's the gist of this week's announcement from Mario Lemieux and his partners in what they describe as an "impasse" with local authorities on a new arena deal.

Maybe this is Lemieux and the rest of the Penguins' ownership group putting local politicos' collective feet to the fire one last time as a kind of payback for the smug disregard the team, which insists it needs a new arena, has received from these same officials over the past seven years.

Or maybe Lemieux and his gang really have had enough of the to-ing and fro-ing; even though the current deal on the table is better than the one a month ago, they've had enough and are printing up their "Kansas City, Here We Come" placards as we speak.

Either way, the path being charted by the Penguins suddenly puts NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and the league as a whole, in a potentially ugly pickle.

The commissioner, as the representative of the NHL's best interests, does not have the power to compel the Penguins to accept a deal proposed by local authorities. But the league can reject any potential move, which would serve the same purpose.

Indeed, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell is expected to ask Bettman to do just that in a Thursday meeting scheduled in Philadelphia: Review the offers and bring down the full force of the league to keep the Penguins where they belong. The league's position on this has been crystal clear -- it does not want the Penguins going anywhere. And it's certainly what the fans in Pittsburgh want.

As much as the shiny, new Sprint Center in Kansas City is attractive to some in the league (and make no mistake -- if the Penguins don't go there, other teams, most notably Nashville, will be exploring that avenue in the coming months), Pittsburgh is the best place for the Penguins.

The city has a good if not stellar history of supporting the team. Under Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, the Penguins have more than rekindled whatever support had leaked out during the team's recent lean years. The Penguins have matured into a formidable on-ice team far earlier than observers had predicted and expect to sell out every game down the stretch and into the playoffs.

If the Penguins move after their Mellon Arena lease expires at the end of June, it will reinforce the widely held notion in much of the United States that the NHL is a rinky-dink operation. Imagine what the perception will be if the team folds up its tent days after winning a Stanley Cup.

But here's the problem for Bettman: What happens if he cannot broker a deal between the two sides and ultimately decides Mario & Co. need to stay put? Does the NHL suddenly find itself in a tug-of-war with one of its greatest players and a Hockey Hall of Famer? Oh, that'll make for some nice headlines during the playoffs. Take it one step further -- what happens if Bettman and the NHL block the Penguins' move (the NHL's board of governors must approve any franchise relocation) and the league suddenly, if predictably, becomes the subject of a massive civil suit?

Imagine John Elway suing the NFL. Or Cal Ripken suing Major League Baseball. Or Gilligan suing the Skipper. How do you like those optics?

Further, what message does it send to potential owners down the road, whether about the sale of existing franchises or the future expansion of the league to 32 teams, something many believe is inevitable?

As one NHL governor told ESPN.com, the ability to move a team is the only hammer owners have in their relationships with their local constituencies. Who would come on board as an owner if they were worried the league might step in and essentially wrest control of their team's future if things went sideways in their market?

Of course, this would all go away if Lemieux and his partners could find some solution with local government. It appears they aren't all that far apart, and when the final hour is about to strike, perhaps common sense can prevail.

If Bettman can find a way to make it happen, he'll have done a great service to the city of Pittsburgh, the Penguins' fans and the league as a whole.

But that's a mighty big "if" that seems to be getting bigger by the day.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.