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With their -- and most successful -- season in the books, the Buffalo Wings must deal with two basic questions in the offseason:

Who will be their next coach?

Will they continue to call the Buffalo State Hockey Arena their home?

"I can almost guarantee that I'm not coming back as coach next year," said Benny Gulakiw, the Wings' vice president of operations who also served as interim coach for the last five regular-season games and the playoffs.

The team executive stepped in on an interim basis with the departure of Lou Franceschetti. Under Gulakiw, Buffalo was 4-1 in regular-season games and 1-1 in the playoffs. Team administration and not coaching is Gulakiw's forte, however, and that's where he wants to concentrate his efforts.

Assistant coach Dave Cairns ran practices and installed the system the Wings used at the end of the season.

"Dave Cairns is the leading candidate to be the next coach, but we also will explore what's out there," Gulakiw said.

One possible drawback to Cairns becoming full-time head coach is that he is a resident of Vancouver on Canada's Pacific Coast.

Meanwhile, the Wings must decide whether to continue to play at Buffalo State, their home for the last two seasons. The team played in Marine Midland Arena in 1997, but did not draw the crowds to justify using that venue.

Gulakiw said the Wings have enjoyed their relationship with the college, but there are some deficiencies with the facility that may not be easily remedied.

"The main one is air conditioning, to be honest," Gulakiw said. Fans and players often were uncomfortable on hot summer nights and conditions inside the building might have been a factor in keeping attendance down. According to RHI figures, the Wings averaged 1,306 tickets sold per game last season, fourth best in the eight-team league.

The Wings have not ruled out a return to Buffalo State, but they may also look at the Amherst Pepsi Center and even Marine Midland Arena as possible playing sites.

The Wings will carry some optimism into the 2000 season, no matter where they wind up playing. The team came one step from reaching the finals of the Roller Hockey International playoffs, losing, 11-7, to the eventual champion St. Louis Vipers on Aug. 20 in Anaheim, Calif.

"I think ultimately we're happy with the way our third season progressed," Gulakiw said. "We got to the second round of the playoffs last year, too, but I thought we had a much better chance to go further this year. We proved we're a good team."

Aside from the won-lost record (13-13 in the regular season) and playoff performance (1-1), Gulakiw said the most important accomplishment was increasing public awareness of the team and RHI. Even the controversy surrounding Wings goalie Steve Vezina after he failed a drug test at the Pan American Games and cost Canada the gold medal helped in an odd way. Vezina and the Wings received media attention that they might not have gotten otherwise, Gulakiw said.

Also, the Wings developed a personality.

"Just the fact that we had a gritty team that led the league in scoring most of the season -- and penalty minutes -- and having three players (Ken Blum, John Vecchiarelli and Mark Major) in the top 10 in scoring helped give us an identity," Gulakiw said.

Most of the Wings' key players have indicated a desire to return to the team and the sport next year, but nothing is definite. The players' main sport is ice hockey, and actions taken in that sport often dictate players' availability for roller hockey.

The Wings are looking forward to having Blum, Vecchiarelli, Major and Vezina back as well as late-season standout Ryan Shanahan of South Buffalo. However, there is a chance that Vecchiarelli and Major might consider retirement.

Shanahan, a South Buffalo native who played ice hockey in Louisiana last winter, came on at the end of the Wings' season. Losing him to a groin injury early in the final loss to St. Louis hurt the Wings' chances of getting to the championship game.

"Ryan Shanahan was by far our best player in the playoffs," Gulakiw said.

The Wings continue to promote roller hockey in Western New York by sponsoring the Mission Junior Wings, who finished third in the Major Junior A League, based in Canada, and two youth leagues at the Pepsi Center.

Despite operating losses, Gulakiw said that principal owner Dr. Frances Ann Edmonston of San Francisco remains enthusiastic about the sport. Dr. Edmonston and other RHI owners had to come up with money to keep the league operating after Aug. 1, when RHI's principal investor, Raj Pamnani of New York, withheld funds for player salaries and playoff bonuses.

RHI, which returned this year after taking a one-year hiatus, reestablished itself with eight teams, four in the East and four in the West. Detroit and Florida, which pulled out of the league temporarily this year, are expected to field teams in 2000.

"I would expect between eight and 12 teams in the league next year," Gulakiw said.

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