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HAMISTER, BERMAN KNOW WHEN TO GET IN THE GAME

Mark Hamister and Todd Berman, two names you'll be hearing plenty in the coming years, are Western New York natives whose hearts are in the right place. Their wealth was born from educated guesses and calculated risks, from having gumption and business savvy to push forward when others were scared stiff.

Their joint venture into the National Hockey League really comes down to little more than a high-stakes brand of poker. The most successful gamblers leave their hearts at the door and bet with their heads, for doing the opposite is a guaranteed loser. Nobody understands that as much as the two prospective owners of the Buffalo Sabres.

They wasted no time tapping into the hearts of Sabres fans because they are, in fact, among them. Both have been following the team for decades, Hamister while living here and Berman from Wall Street. Their broken hearts need mending, just like yours. They want to make this work, just like you.

Hamister and Berman also are no dummies. During the bidding process, they subtracted emotion and added common sense. Ultimately, they were left with one final question: Can they keep the franchise viable, competitive -- and let's not forget, profitable -- for the unforeseen future? Ultimately, the answer was affirmative.

Hamister said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave him no specific assurances that the league's owners would regain sanity for the sake of stability. At some point over the past several months, Hamister's instincts told him the league would be left standing in the upcoming cage match over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Otherwise, interest in this league makes very little sense.

Presumably, Hamister and Berman were smitten by catchwords Bettman has been using for more than a year: cost certainty. Translation: salary cap, or at least a first cousin of a cap. League owners are willing to wipe out an entire season over this issue, betting they will win the bigger pot of long-term security. Obviously, Hamister and Berman like their chances because nobody is generous enough to donate some $65 million for a hockey franchise, plus another $30 million in assumed debt.

"We believe the focus of the National Hockey League is exactly the right focus," Hamister said. "We believe they have exactly the right commitment to bring it to a proper and fair conclusion. We are supportive of both our role before the process and what our role is after that process."

Nobody should underestimate Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs Jr.'s influence in this equation. Jacobs has ties to Hamister in the local business world. Jacobs opened one of his Delaware Avenue offices for Bettman and Hamister two weeks ago, when Bettman easily could have met with Hamister in a million other places, such as a quiet, secluded parking lot somewhere in Ontario.

Bettman and Hamister share unwavering respect for Jacobs, who already effectively installed his own salary cap with the Bruins. Jacobs isn't the most popular guy in Boston, but the Bruins have a good team that's financially stable. NHL teams should view them as a model for fiscal responsibility.

Hamister and Berman are sitting on two pair, aces and deuces, ready to push a mountain of poker chips toward the middle for the right to see the last card. They're hoping for a full house, banking they draw the ace of hearts, convinced the risk to stay in the game is minimal compared to the reward.

Bassin left behind

Speaking of prospective owners, anybody hear from Sherry Bassin lately? It's been three months since his group said its proposal to buy the Sabres was imminent, but the deadline passed without an offer.

Bettman was none too thrilled with the Bassin group, partly because it became common knowledge that Bassin's first plan was to fire coach Lindy Ruff and hire Ted Nolan. Bettman thought it was counterproductive to the bidding process. Word is he also wasn't thrilled with Frank DuRoss holding a news conference outside HSBC Arena.

Bassin's group never came up with enough money, and it was scrambling for financial backing. Montreal trucking magnate Alan Maislin supposedly had deep pockets. Maybe he just had short arms. Sources say their explanation about what exactly went wrong is imminent.

Dafoe at a discount

Last week, we told you the Atlanta Thrashers would stick with Pasi Nurminen in goal unless Byron Dafoe came cheap. Well, Dafoe came very cheap.

Dafoe will be paid $1.25 million for the rest of the season, and he has an option of making $3.5 million next year, including a $500,000 signing bonus. He was looking for much more money as an unrestricted free agent, but nobody was willing to pay him more than $4 million a season.

"Some general managers shop at Neiman Marcus in the summer," Waddell said, jokingly. "I shop at Wal-Mart after the season starts."

What's less amusing is the fact Atlanta has about $6 million committed to shoddy goaltending. They are on the hook for $2.75 million for Damian Rhodes, who isn't playing. They have another $3 million tied over the next two years to Milan Hnilicka, who has been a bust.

Nurminen makes $630,000, but the Thrash can save about $500,000 by shipping him to the minors. Anyone looking for a goalie?

Flaming out

Flames coach Greg Gilbert could be headed for the gallows unless he gets his team turned around in a hurry. As bad as things have been in Buffalo, they have not been much better in Calgary, where the Flames took a seven-game losing skid into the weekend.

Gilbert's marriage with GM Craig Button is apparently on the outs, and a change will be made if the losing gets out of hand. The Flames have been terrible since a great start last season, and the future looks bleak.

"Do I feel secure?" Gilbert said. "I'll answer that by saying that this is a volatile business, a business that doesn't lend itself to security. It's a bottom-line business. And it's the coach's responsibility to win hockey games. . . . If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. Right now I'm still the coach here."

The general manager holds the hammer, which means Gilbert's in trouble, but Button hasn't helped matters, either. Button was hired after the Flames missed the playoffs four straight seasons under Al Coates. Calgary missed the postseason during Button's first two years. The Flames might wind up looking for a coach and general manager.

Who knows? One Darcy Regier just might be available. You might even take it another step and say the same about Lindy Ruff.

Isles back their coach

There were rumblings last week the Islanders' dressing room has split into separate factions between players and coach Peter Laviolette after a slow start, but the captain, Michael Peca, said everything is just fine.

Laviolette earned his players' respect last season with the Islanders making the playoffs, and Peca insists it hasn't waned despite their poor play this season. The uproar came after the New York Post published a story about division in the room.

"The information didn't come from a player, it came from an agent," Peca said. "Which one it is, nobody really knows and nobody really cares. What we care about is what the truth is. And the truth is, Peter's got everybody's respect. When you see something like that, you rally behind it."

Quotable

Senators assistant and cancer survivor Roger Neilson while being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: "My doctors told me to watch Leafs games to avoid excitement."

Around the boards

Sabres prospect Derek Roy, who was very impressive in training camp before getting sent back to junior for more seasoning, had 13 goals and 39 points in his first 18 games for Kitchener, Ont. Given what's happened, you wonder whether the Sabres would have been better served playing the 19-year-old about 11 minutes a game while grooming him on the power play.

Was there a better fighter in NHL history than Bob Probert? The Blackhawks winger finally retired after 163 goals, 384 points and 3,300 penalty minutes. Few beat him in his prime. Said teammate Lyle Odelein: "Everybody wanted to say they fought Bob Probert and came out alive."

Journeyman defenseman Filip Kuba has found a home in Minnesota. The Flames and Panthers gave up him, but he's become the Wild's best defenseman over the last two seasons. He was rewarded with a three-year deal worth $6 million last week.

One reason the Lightning is enjoying its best start in history has been the play of Vincent Lecavalier, who had 10 goals and 21 points in his first 18 games this season. He had 20 goals and 37 points all last year.

Edmonton's Todd Marchant played his best game this season last week in a 3-1 victory over Calgary. The Williamsville Wonder scored two goals and set up another in 23 minutes. If he keeps it up, the Oilers just might keep him.

Sometimes, all it takes is a change in scenery. The Flames grew tired of listless center Marc Savard, who in his first game with the Thrashers combined with linemates Shawn McEachern and Slava Kozlov for 18 shots in a 4-3 victory over Florida.

Geoff Sanderson has been on fire since being reunited with old mate Andrew Cassels in Columbus. Sanderson, who was tied for the league lead with 12 goals, had a seven-game goal-scoring streak snapped last week. Cassels was seventh in scoring with 23 points.

The Stars gave up hope Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young would rediscover magic from their days in St. Louis. Sneaky Pete moved to left wing, and he scored the winner in three straight games to match a franchise record.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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