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DON'T DEAL AWAY SABRES

Whistles should have blown all over the rink this month, when word surfaced that negotiations over a new waterfront communications center and the financial future of the Buffalo Sabres may include a shortening of the hockey team's long-term lease at HSBC Arena.

The last thing this community needs is a deal that would allow the Sabres ownership to move the team to another city, or even to make that threat.

Agreements that led to the new arena included a 30-year lease with a "nonrelocation" clause. That supposedly ironclad agreement helped justify community investment in the new building, which was funded with $55 million in public aid and $70 million in private loans.

Shortening the life of the lease would turn that trigger for investment into a gun held to the head of a community that has backed the Sabres and made them an integral part of its image and spirit. This region has a stake in helping the team win financial stability, but that help shouldn't permit the chance of losing the franchise.

As much as anything, the long-term lease signed in 1996 reflected the belief by team founders Seymour and Northrup Knox that the Sabres belong in Buffalo. But it's not surprising that Adelphia Communications founder John J. Rigas and his sons aren't letting that sentiment or their own voiced commitment to Buffalo limit their bid for help in building a new $125 million, 1,000-job Inner Harbor communications center.

The family, now completing its long-delayed purchase of the Sabres and reportedly bidding for Cleveland's International Hockey League franchise, has built a reputation for hard-nosed negotiating. Government officials should expect them to push for every possible advantage.

A shorter lease, though, would be one push too far. Any help granted the Sabres should be targeted on keeping the team not only reasonably competitive and healthy, but here. While a shorter lease would give the Rigas family more options and advantages, it totally fails that community-benefit standard.

Buffalo has been this route before. Two years ago, the state put $63 million into Ralph Wilson Stadium improvements as part of a deal that traded ticket-sale goals for a five-year lease guarantee with the Buffalo Bills. But that deal came after the Bills' 25-year stadium lease had expired, not while the earlier deal was still in effect.

The Bills still were criticized for the short guarantee and the issue remains a community concern. But team owner Ralph C. Wilson showed both responsible leadership and community commitment in keeping the Bills in Buffalo for a fraction of what other cities are spending on football stadiums.

Better-crafted financial breaks for the Sabres -- especially if they facilitate the building of a major new job-creating center adjoining the arena -- could make sense. The team contributes to the city and regional economy as well as its image, and is the main tenant of a publicly-owned arena that draws concert as well as sports crowds. The synergy of arena and center can be a wellspring of waterfront development.

It's also worth remembering that the Sabres' $15 million annual losses aren't unique in the National Hockey League, where as many as 21 of the 28 franchises are reportedly in the red and one, Pittsburgh, is emerging from bankruptcy. Canada's six franchises collectively lost $100 million from 1996 through 1998, and unsuccessfully approached the federal government for a bailout.

The Buffalo problem -- money-losing team in an expensive new arena -- also is mirrored in other hockey towns. NHL insiders don't expect improvement until the 2004 expiration of a twice-extended collective bargaining agreement that sent player salaries climbing faster than team revenues. Although franchise values also have skyrocketed in recent years and prospective new teams are paying about $85 million to join the league, the Sabres aren't the only team seeking community help.

Can lease-relief help be provided here? Sure -- within reason. Make it part of a business deal that makes sense all around, but don't hand team owners a parachute and hope they never use it.