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Friday, December 20
Updated: December 22, 10:00 PM ET
Sabres' future depends on if team can complete sale

Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The financially troubled Buffalo Sabres are in jeopardy of folding or leaving the city after this season unless state and local governments help out a pair of prospective buyers, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday.

"There's no question the franchise will complete the season. What happens beyond that will depend on if we can complete the sale,'' Bettman told The Associated Press. "It hinges on a lot of things, but it will hinge, in some measure, on whether this is a good investment for the community. And that's something that only the government leaders will decide.''

The Sabres have been the league's most troubled franchise on and off the ice since the NHL took over operating control of the team from owner John Rigas last June. The move came as a result of Rigas' financial troubles after he stepped down as chairman of Adelphia Communications, a cable TV company.

Buffalo has the league's second worst record at 8-16-5-1, and last month, they had a 12-game winless skid (0-9-2-1), matching the longest streak in franchise history.

The team's poor performance combined with ownership uncertainty has significantly affected ticket sales. The Sabres have sold out only one game this season and are averaging about 12,700 fans a game, about 6,000 below capacity and 5,000 fewer than last season's average.

Bettman added that even with public support, the Sabres face other hurdles, including financial problems and the prospect of bankruptcy to clear the way for a sale.

"If everything comes together, it will be promising,'' Bettman said. "If none of this comes together, I can't predict what will happen.''

Bettman's comments came a day after he expressed his concerns over the Sabres' viability in a meeting with Erie County executive Joel Giambra and Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello. Also at the meeting in New York City were the Sabres' prospective new owners, Todd Berman and Mark Hamister.

Bettman emphasized that while the new owners are not seeking public financial support to complete their purchase, they need assistance in the form capital improvements. That includes the construction of a parking ramp and improvements inside and around HSBC Arena.

The public assistance is estimated to cost about $15 million, not including an annual $1 million capital improvements fund that's expected to be part of the deal.

Hamister said he is not seeking any relief from the annual $2.5 million rent the team pays but is prepared to walk away from the deal if requests aren't met.

"The community needs to decide -- do they want this team and do they want a vibrant HSBC Arena or don't they?'' Hamister said. "I'm not interested in any other NHL franchise. I'm only interested in the Buffalo Sabres. But I'm also OK with not buying them.

"If this community doesn't want it, we'll take our money and not invest it in this business,'' he said.

Berman and Hamister's bid to buy the Sabres was conditionally approved by the NHL on Nov. 20. Upon approval, they were given a 45-day exclusive bargaining rights agreement -- which expires Jan. 3 -- to complete their purchase.

Bettman stressed that the Sabres' best bet to remain in Buffalo rests with Berman and Hamister.

"If we can't consummate this purchase and sale, I would have grave concerns,'' Bettman said. "I don't believe that there's another white knight out there.''

Hamister and Berman did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press.

Adelphia, which declared bankruptcy last summer, has a large stake in the franchise's future. The company is the Sabres' largest creditor, owed $157 million in money Rigas used to purchase and operate the team after he took over control in the mid-1990s.

Local politicians remain hopeful.

"I firmly believe that they can make this work,'' Masiello said. "But it's going to need some cooperation and some tender loving care on the part of all of us to massage this thing so that it does work.

"The last thing we want is a team that just can't make it, because there's too much at risk here.''

Added Giambra: "What we have to determine is how much we're prepared to invest to protect the investment we've already made. We don't have an answer for that yet. But sooner or later, we're going to have to.''

Gov. George Pataki said last week it would be difficult to provide state assistance to the Sabres.

"We're looking at where we can achieve savings, where we can lower the costs, and it's going to be extraordinarily difficult to move forward with new initiatives and investments,'' Pataki said.

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