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HAVE YOU ever been to Hamilton, Ont.? It's the city with the huge steel mill just up the QEW.

Most Western New Yorkers know Hamilton only as the city with the mill that fouls the bay, the place to start looking to turn right for the last run into glitzy Toronto for a weekend of fun and excitement. Hamilton has the image of a dirty steel town where the working man's country club is the corner bar and everyone goes to dinner wearing steeltoe boots and a shined-up hard hat.

Ha, ha, pretty funny, but if you grew up or spent any time in Western New York you've heard the jokes before. You laughed at them and then went on with your life in a town that time and many of the complexities of the modern world forgot.

Hamilton is like that. Nice town. Nice people. Several cultural attractions no one outside of Hamilton seems to know or care about. Not Toronto mind you, but Buffalo isn't New York either and a lot of people are thankful for that.

So why won't the NHL give this Canadian city even a hint of a hope of an expansion franchise?

Well, Buffalo and Toronto are the two biggest reasons. The NHL is not about to cut into its partners' revenue to accommodate a city that wants hockey simply because it's their sport. Buffalo draws heavily from a Southern Ontario base it worked hard to make its own. The Sabres also worked hard to get their product onto a Canadian cable system, thereby selling the game and advertisers' products in a territory it considers its own. Toronto has done the same.

In this scenario, Hamilton never had a chance.

What's surprising is that the league accepted Ottawa. Canada gave hockey to the National Hockey League, but many believe the league -- now dominated by U.S. interests -- is not about to give it back.

The recent explosion of salaries in the NHL doesn't bode well for Canadian-based teams. Although the Stanley Cup has been a fixture north of the border for the last seven seasons, Canadian-based teams are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet.

Montreal made a big splash in trading Chris Chelios for Denis Savard, but if you look beyond that deal, it's apparent that money is the root of the Canadiens' problems this season. They are going with youth, especially at defense, because veteran talent is too expensive.

Montreal -- which no longer gets an automatic sellout -- had to let defenseman Craig Ludwig go south to the Islanders largely because it couldn't meet his salary demands. The Canadiens are running a risk on unsigned center Guy Carbonneau because his demands are considered excessive. They had to let Larry Robinson go to Los Angeles because of money. Others are likely to follow.

It's no different in Edmonton where, despite winning five Cups in seven years, the Oilers had to trade/sell Wayne Gretzky and have a league-wide reputation for being tight with a dollar.

The Winnipeg Jets have never been able to generate enough capital to build itself beyond whatever is available in the draft.

Even megamoney market Calgary is struggling lately. A 21,000-seat building generates a huge cash flow for the Flames, but the simple cost of doing business in Canada -- U.S. vs. Canada dollar values and an oppressive tax system -- makes it near impossible for Canadian-based teams to match the financial earning power of their U.S. counterparts even when they do sell out.

The league's governors are all aware of this. When they met last week in Florida, they listened politely to Canadian proposals but insiders maintain the decisions came down to business and politics. On the business side, Hamilton hurt Buffalo and Toronto and no business is going to invite misery for its own partners.

That, in turn, brings up the political side. By denying Hamilton but accepting Ottawa, the league should be able to avoid any antitrust suits Hamilton or any other Canadian interests might have considered.

OK, so Ottawa doesn't have an arena (Hamilton does), is smaller than Hamilton and is even less well known (in the U.S.) than Hamilton. It really doesn't matter.

If Ottawa interests succeed, fine. They will be no threat to anyone.

Canadians will be happy and perhaps, most importantly, Canadian politicians will be happy.

If they fail, well, that's fine, too. After all, that wasn't the league's fault. The league granted a franchise to Ottawa, the provincial capital of Canada. If the building fails to get built and the franchise fails to get up and running, the league can always approve a transfer. Maybe to Milwaukee, or Seattle or even to Houston.

Hey, those things happen and all the league can do is approve the change.

That's the way things are done now. It's a business, run by very powerful businessmen who have an eye for the bottom line.

Many believe that line is below the 48th parallel where expansion and growth in a U.S. market is viewed as the only vehicle capable of delivering a nationwide television contract to the league. And make no mistake, the league is putting its financial future in the electronic basket.

A U.S. hockey league with cities in the South, Southwest and Pacific Northwest is the true goal for the league in the year 2000.

In the long run, this strategy is likely to help Canadian-based teams. Their problems, like Buffalo's, revolve around the growing costs of doing business in small markets. It's likely that in years to come the NHL will look toward the NBA-styled salary cap, shared gate receipts and certainly shared television revenue. To get that revenue, however, the league has to look to the United States.

It's estimated each NHL teams receives $2 million annually from two national TV deals (SportsChannel America and Molstar) already in place. Each team nets an additional but undetermined sum from its local broadcast and cable rights fees (New York, Montreal Los Angeles and Toronto doing infinitely better than Buffalo, Hartford, Winnipeg and St. Louis).

With rising salaries, that amount is viewed as dangerously low. If the league were able to deliver a larger U.S. market it might be able to attract major national advertising. Tampa represents the 16th largest TV market in the United States and Sunshine Cable network reaches all through the state.

The league hopes to add Miami (seventh largest), Houston (10th largest) another team in California (markets ranging from three to 24 depending on the city) and Seattle (15th largest). Hamilton and especially Ottawa bring nothing to this plan but at least Ottawa offers no threat to an existing market.

Trade rumors

The Vancouver Canucks are looking to move veteran center Petri Skriko. The highest scoring center in Canucks history, Skriko recently has been scratched for eight straight games. . . . The Detroit Red Wings are looking to trade one of their three goalies. Surprisingly, Glenn Hanlon may be staying and Alain Chevrier may be on the block. The Red Wings are also looking to reopen talks with the Soviets regarding defenseman Vladimir Kostintinov, but relations are touchy due to the Red Wings signing Sergei Fedorov when he came over for the Goodwill games in Seattle.

Blue lines

Minnesota's Basil McRae has undergone surgery for the dreaded torn abdominal muscle and will be out upward of 10 weeks. . . . North Stars coach Bob Gainey missed a game to be at his wife's side when she underwent surgery for a brain tumor. The prognosis for Kathie Gainey, 35, is undetermined. . . . The career of Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy John Kordic appears to finally be at an end. The club has barred him from practicing with the AHL's Newmarket Saints and has stopped paying his expenses there (he was living in a hotel). "His heart is not in it and he's becoming a disruptive element," said Bob Stellick, the Leafs director of communications. Kordic said he would fight the actions. He is still being paid. . . . The Pittsburgh Penguins have broken up the "Option Line" of John Cullen, Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi because of a slump. In a recent six-game stretch, the trio was minus-15, minus-14 and minus-12, respectively. For much of the season the trio has been in the top 10 in scoring, but other teams have begun to shut them down as the Penguins have evolved into a one-line team. Said Pittsburgh coach Bob Johnson: "They might be in a mild slump."

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