NEW YORK - If the NHL and the players' union come to terms on a collective bargaining agreement - and they tried to inch toward one as they met again Wednesday in New York - Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle figures to get lots of the credit.

The sides continued to be cautiously optimistic Wednesday, the 81st day of the lockout and the second straight day of meetings between owners and players - and again without the leaders, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association.

Burkle, 60, would be an unlikely hero if the season is indeed saved.

The billionaire built his fortune on a California grocery empire, has friendships with people such as Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger, and had little interest in hockey until he and Mario Lemieux spent $107 million and purchased the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999.

But Burkle, who rarely attends Penguins games, has a reputation as an expert negotiator, having handled numerous deals with unions in the grocery business.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell praised Burkle for his negotiating work as the Penguins sought funding for Consol Energy Center in 2007. "Neither Bettman nor Fehr could possibly be a tougher negotiator than Ron," Rendell told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

From all accounts, Burkle brought a sense of calmness and created a great rapport with the 18 players at Tuesday's breakthrough meeting. That session included the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the face of the league, a close friend of Burkle's, and a vocal leader for the union.

Steve Fehr, general counsel for the NHLPA and Donald's brother, said the meeting produced perhaps the most progress since this nasty labor dispute started in September.

Both sides were trying to build off that momentum as they met late into Wednesday night and had almost the same contingent as Tuesday: six owners, 19 players (one more than Tuesday), NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, and Steve Fehr.

There are many issues, including how to divide hockey-related revenue, free agency, length of player contracts, and length of the CBA. The owners apparently now want a 10-year CBA, while the union wants a five-year pact.

Owners and team executives were updated at a board of governors meeting earlier Wednesday. When the meeting ended, there were positive vibes.

Asked if he thought a settlement was near, Columbus president John Davidson said: "We feel good about the information we got."

"I'm encouraged," said Lou Lamoriello, the Devils' president and general manager.

One league source said the owners would stay in New York as long as it takes to get a deal done.

Sportsnet (Canada) reported that some coaches had called players, asking them to be ready for an imminent return.

If a CBA is in place in the next week - and that's a big if - and the season starts on, say, Dec. 22, it would give the NHL a 16-week schedule. Playing four games a week, which would create a 64-game schedule, would be too exhausting for the players. It's likely the NHL would have teams play three games in one week and four in the next, creating a 56-game schedule.

But that's jumping too far ahead. A lot more negotiating has to be done.

That said, at least a sense of optimism is being generated, and Burkle, who briefly had interest in buying The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News in 2010, is a big reason for it.

Giroux skates. Flyers center Claude Giroux, who injured his neck while playing in Germany on Nov. 17, returned to the ice Wednesday and skated with some NHL players in Ottawa.

Contact Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @BroadStBull.