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WINGS FACE DECISION ON WHICH ROLLER HOCKEY LEAGUE WILL FLY

Major League Roller Hockey or Roller Hockey International?

Some time before the end of this year, the operators of the Buffalo Wings will decide which league best serves the future of the 3-year-old franchise. That is the major question facing the Wings, whose season ended with a controversial, 7-6 playoff loss at Columbus last month.

Although the Wings lost money last season, there's no doubt they will put a team on the court in 1999, according to Benny Gulakiw, vice president for operations.

Dr. Frances Edmonston of San Francisco and Jason C. Klein of Buffalo remain committed to their original three-year plan to develop the sport on the Niagara Frontier, Gulakiw said.

The Wings played in RHI. However, when RHI temporarily suspended operations late last winter, the Wings joined with the hastily formed MLRH. The team will attend MLRH meetings later this month in Washington, D.C., and RHI meetings scheduled for Denver in October. After that it hopes to make a decision on which to choose.

"Major League Roller Hockey has had some problems, but they've always been up front with us," Gulakiw said. "They need to make a lot of changes and probably should be given the opportunity to make some changes.

"Our experience is we've gotten a lot of rhetoric from RHI. They have a new plan but the same people running things."

On the court, the Wings were 11-8-1 in the regular season and 1-1 in postseason play. Two close defeats to Columbus late in the season indicated that the Wings had improved to the point that they were close to the caliber of MLRH's top teams -- champion Anaheim, Columbus and Orlando.

Wings coach Lou Franceschetti believes that Buffalo is only a couple of players from moving to the level of those teams. "Anaheim goes 10 or 11 players deep while Buffalo goes as deep as, maybe, seven," Franceschetti said. "Orlando had a little more depth, too, and Columbus has a No. 1 goalie in Joe Bonvie."

As it stands now, Franceschetti, a full-time coach and general manager, will be back for his second year.

The Wings hope to build on the performance of this year's team. Franceschetti said captain and scoring leader Ken Blum and several other players have indicated they will return next year. The Wings' 20-man protected list also includes four players on the suspended or injured list -- Peter Vandermeer, Jason Gladney, Victor Gervais and Jimmy Brown.

Vandermeer and Gladney played for the 1997 Wings. Gladney, especially, would have filled the team's need for one more experienced defenseman.

"If we get one player from the prospects on our junior team and one from our suspended list we could compete with the top teams," Franceschetti said.

Goalie Kevin Kreutzer, forwards Josh Oort and Tim McNamara and defenseman Pete Jeffery, all first-year roller players, were pleasant surprises during the season, Franceschetti said.

"Kevin Kreutzer had never strapped on a roller blades before this year and became our No. 1 goalie. Josh became more or less a complete player instead of just a goal scorer," he said.

Even though Kreutzer played well, the Wings are looking for a top goalie, such as former Buffalo netminder Nick Vitucci. "You only improve if you add players who are going to challenge your No. 1 players," Franceschetti said.

So far, Franceschetti has not been fined or otherwise punished for his confrontation with officials and other actions at the conclusion of the last playoff loss in Columbus. The Wings lost on a power-play goal after a tripping penalty with 18 seconds left.

As for the MLRH vs. RHI question, both have drawbacks. MLRH had first-year problems with some unstable ownerships and less-than-professional operators. RHI attempts to resurface with a new operation plan in which the league would own all the teams and local franchise holders would be promoters and operators in return for a share of the proceeds. A hang-up might be how the equity and investment of the present franchise owners would be treated.

Wings management seems in tune with MLRH's philosophy -- start on a modest scale and let the sport grow naturally. RHI, on the other hand, chose to expand quickly to major markets and large big-league arenas with high overhead and flopped with small crowds and inflated salaries.

Gulakiw said the Wings would have come close to breaking even last season if their offseason efforts were not hampered by the uncertainty preceding the demise of RHI.

The owners are banking on the increased participation and spectator interest in the sport. The Wings operated a house league for players 8 to adult at the Buffalo State Hockey Arena with around 500 players participating. The team also sponsored the Junior Wings for players 15 to 20, which competed in the Major Junior AS Roller Hockey League against teams from Ontario.

Gulakiw said it's about 95 percent certain the Wings will return to Buffalo State as their practice and game site next year.

"The players like it," he said. "It has good dressing room facilities, it's the right size (capacity 1,800), it's accessible with plenty of free parking. The price is right. The only drawbacks are no air conditioning and no backs on the seats."

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