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BUYING TIME IN SABRELAND
NEW OWNERS PROMISE RESULTS ONCE THE TEAM BECOMES THEIRS

Buffalo Sabres owners-to-be Mark Hamister and Todd Berman stood on the blue line near the Zamboni entrance in HSBC Arena and proclaimed they will be different.

They said they were going to strap a tourniquet on the team's hemorrhaging finances where no one else could. They said they were going to produce a consistent winner of which Buffalo can be proud despite the team's bleak status.

"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we could build a winner," Berman said.

Hamister and Berman, a couple of local boys who made it big in the business world, offered the sort of rah-rah rhetoric fans expected to hear at Thursday's on-ice news conference to officially announce their acceptance into the National Hockey League fraternity.

What they didn't explain, however, is how they would go about accomplishing these feats.

"Actions and not just words are required to make these goals a reality," Hamister said. "This is a work in progress, and there is much more work to be done.

"In recent years, this team has suffered. To re-establish the Sabres as a competitive hockey team, we must transform the Sabres organization into a strong and successful operation."

Said Berman: "I strongly believe we can put a competitive team on the ice, bring more fans to the arena, put the team's economic house in order and build a strong business foundation so our players have the support they need to win."

Hamister was silent about the Sabres over the past few months, and Berman's involvement wasn't revealed until last week. It seems they will continue to be reticent until they assume full control. Their purchase also includes the Buffalo Bandits indoor lacrosse team and exclusive rights to HSBC Arena.

Before the transaction is final the NHL must complete its due diligence on Hamister and Berman, and the NHL's Board of Governors must approve. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a news release Wednesday he expects the transfer of power to occur in early 2003.

"What I would like to do is ask that you give us an opportunity to get through this process," Hamister said, "and I promise you that when it comes to closing time and we have another joyous occasion that we will have a more closely formulated vision that we would like to see."

The NHL seized operations of the team in June after owner John Rigas and sons Tim and Michael Rigas were arrested on charges of allegedly looting Adelphia Communications.

Now that the ownership ordeal is nearing its conclusion, a much-needed air of excitement is surrounding the Sabres.

Coach Lindy Ruff detected a buzz around his team at Thursday morning's practice. The Sabres hope that positive energy can help them avoid extending their winless streak to a club-record 13 games tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets in HSBC Arena (7, Empire, Radio 107.7).

Off-ice employees also were elated. Dozens of Sabres front-office workers and arena personnel sat in Section 107 during the news conference and applauded what they heard.

Hamister is a 51-year-old graduate of Kenmore West who made his money in the health care field. Berman, a 45-year-old from Amherst, earned his fortune on Wall Street.

Hamister said he will assume an "advisory capacity relatively soon" with the Sabres and revealed he will be active within the franchise. Hamister, who owns the Buffalo Destroyers indoor football team, has a reputation of being a hands-on manager.

"I think you can count on this from me: I am not going to be uninvolved," Hamister said. "I plan on spending a significant amount of my personal time with the organization. But this is about having the right people, empowering the right people and supporting the right people in working with this organization.

"I would hope that the fans, as they see me around the building, will stop and talk to me and share whatever their thoughts are. But not unlike the practices I've had with the Buffalo Destroyers, where I spend pretty much half of the game just walking around the arena and talking with people, I expect to be doing the same thing with the Buffalo Sabres."

Then Berman, sporting a grin, wedged in front of his partner at the podium.

"To reinforce that: It's easy to say we're not going to be skybox types," Berman said. "At the same time, we're not going to be involved in player decisions. We're going to have first-class people like (General Manager) Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff to oversee that."

The Sabres' owners-in-waiting praised the work of Regier and Ruff several times during the news conference even though the Sabres have the worst record in the NHL at 3-11-3-1.

"We've had some opportunities to sit down with those gentlemen (Regier and Ruff) and developed a lot of respect," Hamister said. "First and foremost, however, we don't think that's where the No. 1 problem is. We believe that the No. 1 problem is that ownership needs to set the vision, needs to set the tempo, needs to set the expectations. We hope to fill that void and create an environment where everyone in this building can be successful.

"The first thing I would do is sit down with Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff and gain their input, ask them the most important question an owner can ask: What is it that I can do that will help us achieve this objective?"

Ruff reported the Sabres will have to recall a defenseman from Rochester today - probably Rory Fitzpatrick - if either Henrik Tallinder (shoulder) or Alexei Zhitnik (groin/knee) can't play tonight. Captain Stu Barnes should return from a groin injury after missing practice this week.

Ruff declined to divulge whether Ryan Miller would get his second straight start in goal.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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