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Rossi: For Pittsburgh hockey, Bettman deserves a world of thanks

It's been called “The House Sid Got Built.” And it's true that Consol Energy Center might not exist, let alone stand as the center of the hockey universe Wednesday night, were it not for a pingpong ball delivering Sidney Crosby to the Penguins.

But even before that fortuitous bounce almost a dozen years ago, somebody else preserved our city as an NHL town. It happened when Sid was still “The Next One” and Mario Lemieux was skating on “the last one” (as in healthy hips).

Just so happens, too, that this somebody still won't own up to all he did to keep “Pittsburgh” in front of the Penguins.

I'm talking about Gary Bettman.

While we spoke last week, the NHL commissioner again deferred to Crosby and Lemieux (also, co-owner Ron Burkle and Penguins CEO David Morehouse) for their roles in building “that great new facility … well, I guess it's not new anymore.”

“But it's still great,” Bettman said. “It was spectacular for our Stanley Cup Final last year.”

Indeed, Consol never looked better than it did in June. Even before then, it had blended wonderfully with our city's Uptown, making for an ideal complement to the Pirates' brilliant baseball yard on the North Shore.

PNC Park didn't do enough for the Pirates, though.

Had baseball adopted a salary-cap system similar to one for which Bettman sacrificed a hockey season, the Pirates probably would be what the Penguins became: a consistent championship chaser in an all-even economic system. But baseball isn't hockey, so the Pirates can't do what the Penguins have done.

Oh sure, the Pirates could win the World Series.

They just probably can't do it and then bring back just about everybody.

The Penguins will have pulled off that trick by at least the end of training camp next month, when all players will be back from World Cup activity. Aside from depth defenseman Ben Lovejoy and backup-backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, all significant contributors to the Cup run will be wearing hockey's sharpest uniforms this season.

Bettman didn't make that decision.

He did make the decision possible for general manager Jim Rutherford.

He has always made sure the biggest decisions best suited the Penguins. He just won't reveal the specifics.

Once a lawyer, always cautious, I suppose.

But I need not suppose the manner in which this lawyer-turned-hockey ruler has helped hockey fans in my city. Hear some stories from enough people, and you can presume they're the actual record even if they're off the record.

On the record, Bettman spoke like either a Penguins historian or a consultant for VisitPittsburgh.

“I've always believed in Pittsburgh as a hockey market,” Bettman said. “If you look at Pittsburgh's history before the Penguins, but certainly since the Penguins came into the NHL now 50 years ago, this is an important place where hockey matters to some of the best sports fans anywhere.

“Pittsburgh's been home to some of our game's greatest players. Of course, you're watching some now with Sidney and Evgeni (Malkin), but there's (Jaromir) Jagr and Mario. That is a lot of history just with those four players, and the Penguins have had many other great players. You could accurately call Pittsburgh home to arguably the most exciting players of the last few decades. I think it's fair to say the Penguins have consistently given their fans excitement.

“And, as you've seen a couple of times since I've known you, the Penguins have brought to that city and those fans what I think is the hardest trophy to win in professional sports.

“Pittsburgh is a wonderful hockey town.”

Pittsburgh would probably be an AHL town had Bettman not denied for an entire season the NHL to pathologically devoted hockey fans.

The price for him was a lifetime of hatred.

The reward was for every fan in any NHL market that doesn't involve the Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings. The salary cap proved to be oxygen to lower-revenue franchises such as the Penguins, who slowly had the air sucked out of them as corporation-backed clubs pushed their payrolls to near or above $100 million.

With no cap, there would have been no chance for the Penguins to make the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 years. (Remember, they had gone three years without a postseason berth before the lockout, and for a few seasons prior, the Penguins had barely qualified.)

The cap has been the Penguins' MVP throughout the Crosby era.

A consistent runner-up has been Consol, which is as much Bettman's building as Sid's house.

Oh, the Penguins definitely were destined to play in a new arena. It was likely going to be in Hamilton, Ontario, which is where former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie wanted to move them upon reaching a purchase agreement with current ownership a decade ago.

That deal was done after the lockout, after Crosby's arrival and before local and state officials found the urgency to find a way to fund Consol. It wasn't Kansas City or Las Vegas that was going to pluck the Penguins from Pittsburgh. It was Canada and Blackberry's boss.

And it was Bettman who stepped up for Pittsburgh.

In the fall of 2006, he stomped all over Balsillie's barely secret plans by imposing a couple dozen restrictions on a potential relocation.

Of course, Bettman has never publicly acknowledged this act. As it was explained to me then, his chat with Balsillie went something like this:

Bettman: About 26 things have to happen before you can move this team.

Balsillie: What if all 26 happen?

Bettman: Then I'll find 26 more.

Within months, money to construct the Civic Arena's successor was almost magically found. Go figure.

A couple of years later, with Crosby and Malkin and others signed to long-term second contracts, the Penguins found themselves atop the hockey world.

They found themselves there again in June. Now they're welcoming four World Cup squads — including a Team North America that includes The Four Horsemen of Pittsburgh Hockey (natives Brandon Saad, Vince Trocheck, J.T. Miller and John Gibson) — to the temporary home of Lord Stanley's cherished chalice.

If you're going to the games Wednesday, you might not know for whom to cheer: Sid's Team Canada, Geno's Team Russia or the North American squad that is kind of Team Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh's Penguins play a game that counts on Oct. 13, and the Cup will be in “The House Sid Got Built” that night. So will the man who only knows what it's like to be booed.

Hopefully, Pittsburghers will have something different in store for Gary Bruce Bettman.

Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.


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