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HAMISTER STANDS GOOD CHANCE OF SUCCESS WITH SABRES

Say this about Mark E. Hamister: The guy's got connections.

The question now is whether the new owner-in-waiting of the Buffalo Sabres can use all of those connections within the Buffalo Niagara business community to convince his boardroom buddies to pull out their checkbooks and buy some hockey tickets.

If Buffalo's businesses won't support one of their own, then the Sabres are in big trouble.

After all, Hamister is Mr. Insider. He's the chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's broadest-based business advocacy group. He's part of the Group of 18, the influential, behind-the-scenes cadre of some of the region's top executives. He's got ties to the 43x79 Group, which essentially is the Group of 18 for younger executives.

He's got political clout, too, both with Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and as a trusted adviser and member of County Executive Joel A. Giambra's kitchen cabinet.

And now, he's stepped up to buy the Sabres, securing the team's future in Buffalo for the time being and clearing one of the darkest clouds hanging over the franchise in the minds of many fans.

Sure, it's a business deal. But it's also a community service -- one that no other Buffalonian was willing to even attempt. "This is Buffalo's team. This is all about Buffalo," Hamister says.

So when Hamister stood before cameras with his partner, Amherst native and majority investor Todd R. Berman, and once again urged fans to buy tickets, his appeal had more credibility than a plea from the team's caretaker owner in the NHL league offices.

"That gives him the ability to twist elbows more," says Brian E. Keating, the Western Region president of HSBC Bank USA and the co-chairman of the Business Backs the Sabres ticket selling effort.

Even better, Hamister isn't the Rigas family, the once high-flying cable magnates who blew into town with grand plans and notions that they'd be the city's economic saviors. Buffalo's business community never embraced the Rigases, even before their empire collapsed and they were carted off in handcuffs.

For starters, the Rigases were Outsiders. Even worse, they could be an irritating bunch who didn't make nice with the region's economic hierarchy. And they certainly didn't make any friends when they extracted an extra pound of flesh from HSBC because the bank's naming rights deal for the arena didn't cover its name change from Marine Midland Bank.

On the other hand, everybody who's anybody knows Mark Hamister. "This is somebody who's been here and who's success is because he's a relationship person," says Andrew J. Rudnick, the president of Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Whether the Sabres deal works or not will depend on the details, many of which we don't know at this point, ranging from how the deal will be structured to the size of the additional subsidies the new owners are sure to get from local and state governments.

The one thing we do know is that, at $65 million, the Sabres have lost about a third of their market value in just four years. Yet that depressed price may also be Hamister's opportunity, giving his backers the chance to make money through a rising franchise value if they can put the team on more solid financial footing.

In the long run, much depends on whether the league can reach a new labor agreement that controls player salaries to the point where smaller markets like Buffalo can be competitive.

For the moment, though, Sabres fans can feel it's safe to invest their hard-earned money and emotions in a team that should be here next season and beyond. "It eliminates one of the major obstacles to selling tickets, and that's having a stable ownership," Keating says.

So far, selling tickets for the hockey team has been just as hard as scoring goals has been for Sabres players. Despite all the efforts, the team has sold less than 150 season tickets since the push began.

But now, the ownership issue seems to be settled. That's one less excuse for not stepping up to the ticket window.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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