Despite low profile, Burkle's role pivotal

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Keith Srakocic, Associated PressPenguins co-owner Ron Burkle listens as his partner Mario Lemieux addresses yesterday's news conference on plans to finance and build a new arena, keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

While Mario Lemieux and state and local leaders who negotiated the deal on the new arena took center stage yesterday, one of the biggest players in the talks, Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, stayed in the shadows.

Mr. Lemieux, Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman all took seats on a stage at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center for yesterday's announcement.

Mr. Burkle, a California billionaire who gave Mr. Lemieux the last $20 million he needed to buy the team in 1999, remained out of the limelight, as is his custom.

There's little doubt, though, that Mr. Burkle played a pivotal role in negotiating the agreement that will keep the team in Pittsburgh -- even as Kansas City offered a deal that the governor described as "great" to Pittsburgh's "very good."

In a brief interview afterwards, Mr. Burkle, like Mr. Lemieux, said his goal was to keep the team in Pittsburgh, even with more lucrative offers available elsewhere.

"It's a joint effort by everybody on the team. It wasn't just any one person. Everybody wanted to see the team stay here," he said.

Mr. Burkle helped to close one last gap in financing for a new arena during a make-or-break negotiating session in New Jersey Thursday by pushing state and local leaders to take advantage of falling interest rates.

The suggestion proved on target, allowing the two sides to move a step closer to a deal.

For much of his time with the Penguins, Mr. Burkle has remained in the background, but took a more active role in the talks over a new arena.

Mr. Lemieux said yesterday that he and Mr. Burkle plan to stay as owners for the time being, despite speculation that the team might go up for sale once an arena deal was in place.

With those talks complete, Mr. Burkle said he has no intention of assuming a higher profile.

"I'm in jeans. I'm going to fade away right now," he joked with reporters as he walked away.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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