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HAMILTON FANS SKEPTICAL THAT SABRES WILL COME TO TOWN

Imagine this public-address announcement: "Hamilton Sabres goal, his 30th of the season, scored by No. 77, Pierre Turgeon!"

The Hamilton Sabres?

Perish the thought. But the Sabres moving to Hamilton has become a perceived threat since the team owners announced that they need a new arena within five years to stay in Buffalo.

"I think that the situation is serious enough that there's a very real possibility we'll have to get used to referring to the Sabres as the Hamilton Sabres," North Council Member David P. Rutecki said nine days ago.

Drive 65 miles up the Queen Elizabeth Way to this city on the western shore of Lake Ontario and a different perspective emerges.

Hamilton hockey fans, who admit they are desperate for a National Hockey League franchise, have become cynical about such proposed franchise shifts.

For good reason.

At various times, Hamilton has been mentioned as the new home for the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques. Yet Hamilton's only team is a weak amateur club called the Dukes of Hamilton.

"Every franchise uses Hamilton as a bargaining point to better their own deal with their own arena," said hockey fan Gary Marsters, a 37-year-old sheet metal contractor from nearby Grimsby. "Winnipeg did it. Pittsburgh did it. . . . But the city the team's in never allows them to go."

Equally skeptical about a Sabres move was Marsters' friend, Greg Moro, 32, a plumbing contractor from nearby Winona.

"Buffalo's not going to let the Sabres move out of Buffalo, come hell or high water," he said. "The pressure they'd put on the politicians, they'd give them whatever they want."

Hockey and the NHL are Canada's national passion, and a few of the fans interviewed while eating lunch at Don Cherry's Grapevine restaurant on Main Street East last week mentioned their ambivalence about the Sabres moving to Hamilton.

"It would be great if it happened, because we all want an NHL franchise," said Brent Bentham, 31, an assistant crown attorney. "But it would be a sign of league instability, and I don't want to see the NHL have instability."

"I'd be quite happy to have the Hamilton Sabres," added his colleague, Tim Power, 34, who goes to two or three Sabres games per year. "On the other hand, it would be a shame to see Buffalo lose its team. But if he (Knox) is going to move them, let's have them in Hamilton."

That's the fans' view: cynical and somewhat ambivalent.

City officials and the leaders of Hamilton's bid for an NHL expansion franchise have a different stance. They're cautious about hinting any interest in an existing franchise.

"The city wants to be entirely honorable and respectful toward NHL governors (owners) in our efforts to obtain an NHL franchise," explained David P. Watkins, marketing coordinator for the agency that runs the 17,300-seat Copps Coliseum here.

In other words, Hamilton doesn't want to do anything to raise the ire of Sabres officials, especially because they're one of 21 teams that would vote on future NHL expansion.

Call it the Bob Rich Strategy, in honor of the Buffalo Bisons owner caught in the same delicate position whenever the Seattle Mariners or another troubled baseball franchise becomes a candidate for relocation.

The official party line about the Sabres moving here is strictly "hands off."

"We're going straight down the road to an expansion franchise," said Gerry Patterson, Hamilton's high-powered consultant in its bid for an NHL team. "Everything is aimed strictly at an expansion franchise.

"We have not been approached by another franchise, and we don't have any position on that," the former players' agent said. "I don't feel it's our position to comment on any relationship between Mr. Knox and the authorities in Buffalo."

Hamiltonians who don't have to be guarded all but dismissed the possibility that Seymour H. Knox III's call for a new arena would lead the Sabres out of town -- and up the QEW to Hamilton.

"Frankly, I can't see the Sabres coming here," Sports Editor Gerry Nott of the Hamilton Spectator agreed.

"Knox is giving the city five years," Nott pointed out. "If he said two years, it might be different. I don't think he's got the gun to the city's head. But he's letting them know he's got the gun in his pocket."

Sabres officials have said that their sole emphasis is on getting a new arena in Buffalo, and that they haven't given any thought to possible sites for moving the team.

Hamiltonians would much rather talk about the city's chances for landing an expansion team. Up to three teams may be added in the early 1990s, and as many as seven by the end of the decade.

"I think our chances are excellent," said Patterson, who stands to receive a $750,000 finder's fee for a Hamilton NHL franchise, the Spectator has reported. "We're positioning ourselves to be one of the first three franchises, and to be the top Canadian choice."

The leading American contenders are believed to be Milwaukee, the San Francisco Bay area and maybe Seattle.

Here are the pros and cons of Hamilton's candidacy, as gleaned from interviews with 10 fans, journalists and officials leading the campaign. First the pros:

Population base. While Hamilton is somewhat smaller than Buffalo, with a population of 308,000, Patterson spouts the fact that 5.35 million people live within 60 miles of Hamilton.

Arena. The Copps Coliseum, built and opened in 1985 for $42.7 million (Canadian), is the biggest such arena in Eastern Canada. The arena, already equipped with 10 luxury boxes and air-conditioning, has only two seating levels, and the sight lines seem terrific from every angle of the coliseum.

Media coverage. Hamilton's slick 11-page brochure, titled "Hamilton: We're Ready," notes that the local television market includes five stations from Buffalo and others from Toronto to Erie, Pa.

Now, some of the cons:

Cost. Experts have put a $50 million (U.S.) price tag on an expansion franchise. That figure, which could be inflated by territorial payments to Toronto and Buffalo, would require an $8 million (Canadian) profit per year just to service the debt, according to some estimates.

Proximity to Toronto and Buffalo. As the crow flies, both existing NHL cities are within 50 miles, which means that the Maple Leafs and Sabres would have to give their blessings. That probably means a hefty amount of cash, which could hike the $50 million figure by at least $10 million.

"We know, going in, that it's necessary for us to meet, discuss and negotiate with Toronto and Buffalo to obtain approval for a franchise," Patterson said.

Can Hamilton be sold to the NHL, especially the U.S. teams and their television markets? This is a tricky point. Hamilton boosters point out that one Canadian city needs to be added among the next three franchises, to keep the 2:1 ratio of American-Canadian cities in the league.

But as hockey fan Power put it, rather reluctantly:

"Although everybody's working very hard to get a team here, my own personal opinion is that the American owners won't put another team in Canada."

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