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An investment team led by Buffalo businessman Mark E. Hamister is poised to become the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres -- a team immersed in red ink and struggling to get out of last place and win back fans since becoming entangled in the Adelphia Communications scandal.

A purchase package offered by Hamister's group was given conditional approval Wednesday by National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman just hours after the team's other suitor, billionaire Rochester businessman B. Thomas Golisano, refused the league's request that he improve on the bid he had made Tuesday.

"I am proud that our group has been selected by the NHL to move forward to conclude the purchase of the Sabres," said Hamister, deferring a full discussion of his group's successful bid until a news conference this afternoon.

A beaming Hamister made a surprise appearance for a "Business Backs the Sabres" event at Hy-Grade Distributors in the Town of Tonawanda on Wednesday evening.

"I spoke with the NHL and am looking forward to talking to the media and the community more (today) as we deal with this exciting opportunity," Hamister said.

When asked if he felt relieved at gaining the league's endorsement, he said the nonstop smile on his face "should speak volumes."

Sources close to the bidding process estimated the bid at $60 million to $65 million. The financial package is said to include as much as $33 million in cash to cover the team's debt.

Though no one from the Hamister group would discuss details of the winning bid, a representative did confirm that at the request of the NHL, it reworked some portions of the bid it submitted in mid-September, increasing its value. Those changes were described as "tweaking, not major restructuring."

The Hamister group and the league will now enter another round of negotiations that will lead to a formal vote by the NHL's Board of Governors early next year.

"After narrowing the bid process, it was determined that the terms of the Hamister bid should be accepted," Bettman said in a statement regarding selection of the Buffalo-based ownership group's offer.

Adelphia will also be involved in the upcoming due diligence process as part of its bankruptcy proceedings. Bettman noted that representatives of the cable television corporation had a role in the bidding process, and he characterized their involvement as "cooperative."

"It's the best news I've heard in a long time -- a home-grown owner keeping the Sabres in Buffalo," said Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

He also noted the Sabres could have been sold to a higher bidder by the NHL, which has been operating the team since June following the financial collapse of Adelphia, the team's current owner. Had that happened, it's likely the Sabres would have moved out of town.

"This is an important day for sports in Western New York and Southern Ontario," said County Executive Joel A. Giambra. "It means the Sabres are going to remain a cultural part of this community. It also means that we will continue to have a $100 million-plus arena with a major-league tenant."

Giambra said he had no preference between the two bidders but concluded that "the National Hockey League decided that Hamister had a more solid offer and ownership situation" than Golisano. Hamister received word he had beaten out Golisano a short time after the Rochester businessman informed the league that he would not improve upon the formal offer he had submitted earlier this week. The Paychex chairman and failed gubernatorial candidate said he spoke directly with Bettman, in a phone conversation that lasted less than four minutes.

"I think I would have liked to have been the team's owner, but I'm not going to make a bad business decision," Golisano said.

Golisano said his decision to stick with his undisclosed original offer was based on the Sabres' current fiscal condition, which he termed "a risky situation." In addition to assuming the team's existing debt, new ownership will also face millions of dollars more in deferred compensation for the players, and a murky future on the issue of a players salary cap.

Hamister, 51, a Town of Tonawanda native, is a self-made millionaire whose current business portfolio includes National Health Care Affiliates, which comprises a home health care group and two adult care facilities. He also owns Premier Self-Storage and is involved in commercial development.

In 1999, his business interests took a sporty twist when he acquired the Buffalo Destroyers arena football team. He also owns the Rochester Brigade, a minor-league arena football franchise, along with rights to develop a team in Dayton, Ohio. He also holds the rights to bring an American Basketball Association franchise to the Buffalo market.

A respected leader in the business community, Hamister serves as chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and has a seat the table of virtually every key local decision-making body in Western New York, including the Group of 18, the 43x79 Group, Erie County Industrial Development Agency and the University at Buffalo Foundation.

He is also prominent in Republican governmental circles, backing GOP candidates with financial support, and providing casual counsel to Giambra and others, including Masiello, a Democrat.

The rest of the so-called "Hamister ownership group" remains more of a mystery. Only this month the identity of a key investor, Todd R. Berman, slipped out. Berman, an Amherst native is president and founder of Chartwell Investments, a New York City-based private equity group.

Berman, whose identity became public only after Bettman mentioned him at an NHL media event, was described by Hamister as a "longtime hockey fan interested in the Buffalo Sabres."

News Sports Reporter Tim Graham and Staff Reporter Anthony Cardinale contributed to this report.


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