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SABRES EXCITED TO HAVE NEW OWNER

The Buffalo Sabres are off to the poorest start in franchise history. They are on pace to win 14 games this season. They own the worst record in the National Hockey League.

And if they record a loss or a tie Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets in HSBC Arena, the Sabres will have gone winless for a club-record 13 straight games.

But the Sabres, who probably had forgotten what it feels like to receive good news, finally got some on Wednesday.

Despite their flaws and lack of fan interest, somebody out there wants them.

The Sabres reacted with relief and exhilaration over the announcement the NHL had accepted the bid of a group led by Buffalo businessman Mark E. Hamister to purchase the team.

"It's an exciting day," coach Lindy Ruff said at a previously scheduled Buffalo Backs the Sabres reception at Hy-Grade Distributors, a paper and janitorial supply company in the Town of Tonawanda.

"News like this just gives us that extra boost," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "Organizationally and in the community, this is positive all the way around."

Hamister also attended the affair. But, aside from politely declining to answer questions from the assembled media, the beaming owner-in-waiting didn't offer much comment. Hamister will hold a 2 p.m. news conference today.

Ruff, however, relayed Hamister's basic sentiments.

"Mark's very excited," Ruff said. "He's excited about the team, excited about coming to the game on Friday night.

"I'm excited to see him around, to see ownership around again. He likes a lot of things about our club, and I think it's going to be a time of year where he evaluates."

Hamister and his financial backers won't officially take control of the Sabres until the NHL completes its due diligence on the group's offer and the league's board of governors approves it. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated in a news release that he expects the process to be completed in early 2003.

The league assumed control of the Sabres in June after owner John Rigas and two of his sons were whisked away in handcuffs and charged with looting Adelphia Communications.

Now a new Sabres era is about to begin.

"It's an exciting time for the organization," Ruff said. "It's a sign the team has got some roots here, the team can stay here. It can do nothing but help.

"It should come as an added spark. It's something we've never used as a crutch, but the players see there's some direction, that somebody's stepped in, somebody cares about keeping the team here. It's important for this city and it's important for the team."

The players had been adamant throughout the ownership ordeal that it wasn't a distraction to them.

With the ownership search complete, there are hints the players might have been adversely affected after all.

"It's something that's been looming over our heads," Sabres defenseman and alternate captain Rhett Warrener said. "It's not something we think about every day, but it's something that's always in the back of your mind.

"Hopefully it's positive, and if it has been bothering guys, they can stop worrying about it. We can concentrate on hockey now. It's nice to have an owner behind you that's going to put the team's best interests first and foremost."

Said Ruff: "If there was any indecision with the players about what direction the team was going and where it was going to be, they now know it's going to stay, that "I'm a Buffalo Sabre, and I'm not going to be something else tomorrow.' The players will take a lot more pride in that now."

Regier and Ruff said they have not discussed business philosophies or hockey strategies with Hamister yet.

"When you buy a team you get to do what you want to do," Regier said. "So certainly things will change.

"But I think the biggest thing is people will be able to focus. The players will be able to focus more. We'll all be able to focus on the jobs at hand. We know that there's a process to go through still, but knowing that the team is staying in Buffalo is the most important thing for this community."

Two key Sabres missed practice Wednesday. Captain Stu Barnes sat out with a groin strain, but Ruff expects him to play against the Blue Jackets. Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, however, is listed as doubtful with knee and groin injuries.

Defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who has missed six games with a separated shoulder, should be cleared for full contact today and could take Zhitnik's spot on Friday against Columbus.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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