If the National Hockey League is planning to expand its northern-dominated game to the southern half of the United States, it was given the opportunity on Wednesday. Six of the 10 cities that applied for NHL franchises before Wednesday's deadline are from the South or Southwest, including three from Florida.
Besides competing franchise bids in Tampa and St. Petersburg, the other Sun Belt applicants are Miami, Houston, Phoenix and San Diego.
The NHL also received bids from traditional hockey country: Hamilton, Ontario; Milwaukee; Ottawa, Ontario; and Seattle.
NHL president John Ziegler refused to speculate on which cities might be front-runners.
"We're not going to prejudge any of the applicants," he said. "Today is not the day. We're excited that so many cities have such confidence in the NHL and we want to work with them."
League officials and owners have given two primary reasons for the expansion. One is the league's growth in popularity over the past decade, which was helped in part by the U.S. Olympic hockey team's performance in 1980 and by such stars as Wayne Gretzky.
The other reason is money from television coverage. With more markets involved, the NHL hopes to join other major sports leagues in benefiting from a national television contract.
Of all the U.S. cities that have entered the competition, Houston has the largest television market with a No. 10 ranking. The Tampa Bay area is second in the group; it has the 13th-largest market.
Ziegler said he was pleased by the caliber of the applicants. They gave a "vigorous response" to the NHL's expansion plans, he said. "They are gratifying testimony to the confidence we and others share in the future growth of the NHL."
NHL vice president and chief counsel Gil Stein said the applications will be reviewed by a committee of the league's Board of Governors in the next few weeks. The committee is expected to report to the full board in mid-November.
The NHL is expected to announce its expansion plans Dec. 10.
A statement Wednesday from the NHL's New York City headquarters didn't specify how many franchises would be awarded.
The league has said only that it plans to expand by seven teams by the end of the century, and that "one or more" of those would be awarded in time for the 1992-93 season.
Although the media has widely reported that two teams will be awarded this December, NHL spokesman Gerry Helper said Wednesday that it was speculation.
He said the league is keeping its options open on the number of teams to be awarded in this round. It could be more than two or less than two, he said.
"If they have three real solid, terrific applications, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they awarded three franchises," said Mark Perrone, vice president of the Tampa Bay Hockey Group (TBHG), which submitted its franchise application Wednesday.
The TBHG has recruited the Spectacor arena management company to build a hockey facility next to Tampa Stadium if the group is awarded a team. The group is competing directly against Compuware Corp., a Detroit-area computer software company that runs junior-level hockey programs. A Compuware franchise would play its games in St. Petersburg's Florida Suncoast Dome, and later, possibly, in a new arena near the Dome.
Compuware's Jim Rutherford said Wednesday that the company chose Tampa Bay because it has only one major sports franchise _ The Tampa Bay Bucs _ and a growing population of transplanted Northerners who miss their hockey.
"I think the National Hockey League really needs to expand on the outer fringes of the United States," Perrone said. "We would certainly hope that we're selected. Tampa Bay makes a whole lot of sense because I think they (NHL officials) want to go west and south."
Here are brief summaries of Tampa Bay's competitors:
Hamilton shares Canada's largest television market with Toronto, 40 miles away. The applicants are a group of investors that includes the city of Hamilton. The team would play in the 17,500-seat Copps Coliseum.
Houston was home to the Houston Aeros of the defunct World Hockey Association. The applicants are Charlie Thomas and Ray Patterson, owner and president, respectively, of the NBA's Houston Rockets. A team would play in the Summit, a 15,600-seat arena.
In Miami, the 16th-largest television market, the hockey effort is led by Godfrey Wood, a 49-year-old real estate investor who lives in Boston and co-founded the NHL's Hartford Whalers. He also attempted to buy the Boston Bruins and Boston Garden. Games would be played in Miami Arena, which seats 15,000 for hockey.
Ottawa is Canada's fourth-largest television market. Its effort is led by a group called Terrace Investments. The city has a 10,000-seat arena, but principal investor Bruce Firestone plans a 22,500-seat building with an attached hotel and office complex.
The investment group in Phoenix remained anonymous Wednesday. Through their lawyer, however, they said they would play in a new arena under construction for the NBA's Phoenix Suns or in a newer hockey-only building. Phoenix is the nation's 20th-largest television market.
In San Diego, the owners of the Gulls of the International Hockey League are leading the effort. If awarded a franchise, Vin Ciruzzi and Harry Cooper would build a new arena 10 miles north of the city, which is ranked 24th among the nation's television markets.
Seattle is represented by Barry Ackerley, owner of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics. The team would play in an 18,000-seat arena that is being planned. Seattle is the nation's 15th-largest television market.
_ Information from Times wire services was used in this report.