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Esposito seeks Japanese help

Less than a week after losing the financial backing behind his effort to win a National Hockey League expansion team, Phil Esposito says several Japanese corporations might provide new money muscle for the Tampa Bay Hockey Group. Nippon Ham, a huge meatpacking company that owns the Nippon Ham Fighters Japanese baseball team, already has promised to help, Esposito said Wednesday.

Four other corporations are strongly interested, Esposito said, including Mitsubishi Electronics, McDonald's of Japan, Kirin Brewery, and Lotte Co. Ltd., a chewing gum and candy firm.

Esposito said he'll fly to Japan next week hoping to negotiate final deals.

"We've already got a commitment from the Nippon people," he said. "I can't tell you how much, but we do have a commitment."

One or more of the other four could help the TBHG fashion a majority ownership package, Esposito said.

"We don't know where their minds are right now, but from what I've been told, they're not interested in running the hockey team. They're interested in the bottom line, like everyone else, and the equity in the building (where the team would play in Tampa)," Esposito said.

Another Asian investor, Tse Hsing Lin of Taiwan, also is a potential backer, said Esposito. "He's strongly interested, but there's no commitment," said Esposito.

NHL officials, who have generally declined comment on league expansion matters, couldn't be reached Wednesday to discuss Esposito's latest plans.

Jim Rutherford, Esposito's cross-Tampa Bay competition, said he wouldn't have much to say either.

"It's just interesting that the one thing we've done is start Aug. 15 (when expansion applications were submitted) with a plan and we haven't changed anything.

"(The TBHG) is our closest competitor and several things have changed. That's good if he's got another investor, but getting another investor doesn't mean you're going to get a franchise," said Rutherford, whose Florida Hockey Ltd. group is seeking a team to play in St. Petersburg's Florida Suncoast Dome.

Meanwhile, Tampa Sports Authority executive director Joe Zalupski said plans continue for a hockey arena next to Tampa Stadium, to be built in cooperation with the Spectacor Management Group.

"There's going to have to be an ownership group in place and completely verified," said Zalupski. "We, in turn, have a whole hell of a lot of work to do, and time becomes of the essence."

NHL owners meet in early December, when they are expected to award two or more franchises. Zalupski said it surprised the TSA when Esposito announced last week that the billionaire Pritzker family had withdrawn its financial backing. He said the development required some reorganization of the TSA effort to coordinate a $30-million public share of the proposed $90-million hockey arena.

Japanese investors have recently moved into the North American sports market, purchasing minor-league baseball teams in Visalia, Calif., Birmingham, Ala., and Vancouver, B.C. A Japanese group also bought the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course in California last month for an estimated $800-million to $1-billion.

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