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NHL wants to come in from the cold

Here now, Maude. This is just too sudden. The National Hockey League is serious about expansion. And the Tampa Bay region looks like one of the strongest contenders to win a franchise in early December, when two new ones are expected to be granted. Early December? That's only six weeks away. Hockey is rushing at us like white water in a Yukon sluiceway. What'll this do to our thin subtropical blood?

See, Tampa Bay folks are used to seeing their sporting projects advance inch by inch, like something cold grinding out of the Arctic. One of those glaciers travels like a jump-track locomotive next to our sports pursuits. When we first started chasing baseball, the natives were still sighting mastodons up around Ocala.

And now the ice man flirteth. It could be a quick courtship.

Nine groups representing eight cities in the United States and Canada talked to the NHL's expansion committee last week in New York City. The committee includes 12 owners from among the league's 21 teams, plus league president John Ziegler.

What the honchos are thinking, no one knows, because the honchos aren't talking.

But after spokesmen for several prospective hockey cities left the private committee talks to meet the media, some sounded as though they were talking themselves away from success. That's maybe a homeboy's wishful observation, but here's some evidence.

Seattle reported financial difficulties and predicted trouble selling the 10,000 season tickets the NHL would like.

One of the San Diego groups may move its endeavor to Anaheim, saying San Diego is too hard a place to sell a ticket. The group doesn't have a place for a team to play, although an arena is planned.

Hamilton, Ontario, still hasn't identified its financial backers, and its spokesman says no leader has emerged to take charge of the group's effort.

Representatives from Houston and another San Diego group had nothing to say afterward, so their progress remains somewhat mysterious.

Suppose, just to be supposing, that the other San Diego group, like its in-town competitor, finds it can't sell tickets either, and that some NHL power decides Houston is just too far removed from a hockey fan base of support.

That leaves Ottawa, Miami _ and Tampa Bay, where Phil Esposito hopes to put a team in Tampa and Jim Rutherford aims to do so in St. Petersburg.

Miami still hasn't announced the identities of its ownership group. Esposito, who appeared to have a solid financial backer, now must find another after the Pritzker family, of the Hyatt Hotel chain, withdrew its support.

Remember, time is wasting for the groups who don't have all their pucks in a row. Early December is the proposed expansion announcement date.

Unwise in the ways of the hockey world, I'm just speculating here. I have no way of knowing what whim and which politics may sway the NHL. Right now it looks as if St. Petersburg and Ottawa are the strongest contenders.

Each has a place to play and committed financial backers. Ottawa has a built-in fan base. The Tampa Bay area has enough Northerners, Canadians and converted Floridian hockey fans to provide support, both Rutherford and Esposito say. And Rutherford, like Esposito a former NHL player, has strong connections to the league.

Also working in the bay area's favor could be the NHL's desire to enhance hockey's television market and _ perhaps _ to further experiment away from the league's traditional cold-weather bases.

Under questioning from a group of seasoned hockey writers last week, Rutherford conceded that the double effort from here could ultimately hurt the region's chances. Several writers have suggested, both verbally and in print, that St. Petersburg may have the strongest entry in this steeplechase.

Amazing.

Two years ago, could anyone have seriously considered the ice game for the bay area, for St. Petersburg or Tampa?

It's no lock now, but the chances must be better than half. You can't help but wonder how much they would improve if the groups representing Tampa and St. Petersburg could, as they did in baseball, find a way to join forces.

That would be amazing twice over.

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