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The Dome goes before the board

National Hockey League expansion committee members pay their first official visit to the Florida Suncoast Dome on Thursday _ and if the league's Board of Governors decides in December to put the newest teams elsewhere, Jim Rutherford says he'd consider buying an existing franchise and moving it here. Gil Stein, the league's vice president and general counsel, and club owners Marcel Aubut (Quebec) and Michael Ilitch (Detroit) will tour the building that housed the biggest crowd in NHL history _ the 25,581 fans who watched the Sept. 19 Los Angeles Kings-Pittsburgh Penguins exhibition game.

"They'll be seeing it without boards (that surround the rink) and ice, but the seats will be in a hockey configuration," Rutherford, director of hockey operations for Florida Hockey Ltd., said Tuesday. "Now they'll see for themselves that it's a great building."

The members of the Franchise and Market Analysis Committee will also visit Miami and Tampa on Thursday. Other committee members are visiting San Diego, Seattle, Houston and the Ontario cities of Ottawa and Hamilton, each of which is hoping to win an NHL franchise to begin play in the 1992-93 season.

The Tampa Bay Hockey Group, headed by Phil Esposito, is competing with Rutherford for an expansion team in Tampa Bay. Esposito has said Spectacor Management Group of Philadelphia would pay $60-million of the $90-million to build a proposed arena next to Tampa Stadium and would manage the arena.

On Tuesday, Rutherford said that if Florida Hockey Ltd. chooses to build its own arena adjacent to the Dome, Spectacor could do it. "That's Spectacor's business and they're very good at doing it," he said. "Corporations like Spectacor would be given the opportunity to get involved."

Esposito staged the Kings-Penguins exhibition game at the Dome. But in his pitch for a team in Tampa, he has repeatedly called the Dome inadequate for full-time hockey. "We tried to take the high road and bite our tongue," said Rutherford, who until Tuesday had never responded directly to Esposito's comments. He said Esposito's comments "led to more questions (from NHL owners) about the Dome than have been necessary."

Stein, Aubut and Ilitch "will make recommendations to the full committee, which will make recommendations to the Board of Governors (owners)," Rutherford said. "We will make our formal presentation Dec. 5 at the league meetings in West Palm Beach and within a few days the governors will vote."

He said he is "committed to St. Petersburg and the Dome. If expansion goes by and Tampa Bay does not get a franchise, the possibility of pursuing other franchises to move them to St. Petersburg is something we would look at."

Rutherford said he didn't think any teams were up for sale at this time _ "If one was, Milwaukee would have bought it." The owners of the minor-league Milwaukee Admirals recently dropped out of the expansion derby, complaining about the NHL's $50-million franchise fee.

"After expansion goes by, maybe some (teams) will be available," Rutherford said. "But I don't think they'll sell for less than an expansion team." He also said the NHL might be reluctant to approve the transfer of an existing franchise.

The 21-team NHL will add the San Jose (Calif.) Sharks for the 1991-92 season, is expected to add two more for 1992-93, and plans to expand to 28 teams by the end of the decade. The winners named in December will have to come up with an immediate $5-million. The next payment of $22.5-million is due next June.

And those first few months of 1991 could be critical. The NHL has set a minimum of 10,000 season tickets as one requirement.

"If you spend the first $5-million," Rutherford said, "and all of a sudden you have a season-ticket drive and you get to May and you've got 1,500 season tickets, then you really have to say, "Do we go forward?' Do we put down the extra $22.5-million when we know that down the road we're going to lose $10-million a year? That's when you have to make a business decision."

But Rutherford said he would be "very surprised if we're in that position, if we haven't sold several thousand season tickets" in the first few months.

Before Tuesday's briefing, Rutherford showed the videotape that the expansion committee was given during informal meetings Oct.

19 in New York. The slick production, espousing the benefits of the Tampa Bay area, pointed out that Florida Hockey Ltd. could build a hockey-first arena next to the Dome after five years. By then, the Dome might have a major-league baseball tenant.

"Unless there's some genius out there in hockey or baseball to put one of these teams in the playoffs in the first two or three years, I don't see where there's going to be a conflict (over dates)," Rutherford said.

And he acknowledged that "a lot of these (NHL) owners are old-school, used to playing in hockey arenas with 16,000 or 17,000 seats. If they're comparing this dome with the Silverdome in Detroit or the SkyDome in Toronto, this dome is half the size. There's some intimacy here."

Assistant city manager Rick Dodge said if the hockey team moved out of the Dome to its own facility, "we wouldn't lose a valuable tenant. We'd have a valuable tenant in a different building. They'd still have a great economic impact on the city and the region." The city would lose the rent "but it would be offset by the real estate tax they'd pay on their own building," Dodge said.