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NEW OWNERSHIP FOR THE SABRES? IT'S ONLY PART OF THE HOCKEY DILEMMA

It is difficult to imagine the Buffalo Sabres under controlling ownership of anyone but Buffalo's Knox family. The region owes the Knoxes an enormous debt for the chance they took in forming the hockey team, the tenacity and enthusiasm they have showed in building and supporting it, and their loyalty to Buffalo.

They remained determined to keep the Sabres in Buffalo as the business of hockey changed around them, making it more and more difficult for "small-market" cities to stay in competition. Ask the hockey fans in Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec where their teams are playing now and what they are called.

Buffalo learned late, perhaps, to appreciate the Knoxes' loyalty fully. Seymour H. Knox III, the brother who had taken the most direct role in running the Sabres, was mourned and memorialized by emotional hockey fans after his death last year. Northrup R. Knox, the remaining brother, is a respected figure, praised for his own commitment.

John J. Rigas, the Pennsylvania cable-company owner who seems likely to take over, is hardly as familiar or beloved as the Knoxes to the Buffalonians who watch the Sabres on the ice. Anyone with a civic interest is probably wondering today what Buffalo can expect if Rigas's debt is, as it may soon be, converted into stock, giving him in the range of 50 percent of the team's ownership.

But Rigas's infusions of capital have already been a critical factor behind the scenes. Buffalo has benefited from them. He has a considerable investment to try to protect, and his business acumen may be an asset not only to the team but to the fans who want to see it stay here.

The Sabres have made it clear that their current financial troubles are serious. With $32 million in losses over the past three years and player salaries climbing by the minute, the team needs skilled management both on and off the ice if it is to save itself.

The community must prepare itself for the possibility of a renegotiation of the Sabres' lease on Marine Midland Arena.

The building of the arena, with private and public funding, was a joint demonstration -- by both the community and the Sabres ownership -- of commitment to keeping major-league hockey here. When the arrangements for it were negotiated, it was understood by all parties close to the talks that Buffalo would have all it could do to stay in the NHL as the big-market cities took over, and that a modern arena was essential to the effort.

The arena -- with seating designed for higher pricing and capacity to help support itself with concerts and other events -- gives the Sabres a chance to make it here. But spokesmen for the current Sabres management have been suggesting recently that just playing in the arena and sharing the previously negotiated percentage of revenues from non-hockey events is no longer enough to keep the team going.

Just a year and a few months after the arena opened to rave reviews, a possible request for renegotiation of the lease comes as an unwelcome surprise. But unless new ownership finds another way to reorganize, the community may have to deal with it.

Three governments provided much of the original arena financing -- state, city and county. They have also shared in the profits from non-Sabres events. But last week the Sabres were poised to ask that all of the state's share go to them, and that the city and county accept fixed amounts, not shares of profits.

Such a request would raise an important question. If the public invests in an arena, shouldn't there be a financial return to the public based on facility profits? Don't state taxpayers deserve a share?

But there are clearly arguments in the other direction, too, as the Sabres continue to show losses.

Taxpayers can be glad that the original lease includes a non-relocation agreement that would make it very hard for the Sabres to pick up and move to another city. But the team still needs enough profit to be viable.

Assuming that negotiations do resume, government officials will have a difficult task in balancing what is right for the taxpayers and what is needed to keep major-league hockey functioning in Buffalo.

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