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"A hot area for hockey'

When the major leagues glanced toward the Tampa Bay area and St. Petersburg and Tampa responded with competing bids, baseball told them to quit bickering and get their act together. Hockey, on the other hand, loves a good fight. And apparently it loves Tampa Bay _ even if only unofficially.

"We think that this area is a hot area for hockey," Gil Stein, National Hockey League vice president and general counsel, said Thursday. "That's an impression we've gotten based on opinions expressed unofficially by a number of owners based on studies we've seen."

Stein and two fellow expansion committee members _ Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut and Detroit Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch _ had no idea when they toured the Tampa Bay area that they had entered a hornet's nest where the competition for identity on both sides of the bay is intense.

"We love competition. Our lives have always been competition. We think about competition every day," Aubut (Oh-boo) said after touring the Florida Suncoast Dome, where Jim Rutherford's Florida Hockey Ltd. wants to put a team, and a parking lot next to Tampa Stadium, where Phil Esposito's Tampa Bay Hockey Group wants to build an arena if it gets a team.

"When we see two groups who really like to cover one territory, that shows us that hockey is very healthy," Aubut said. "We have a choice and we hope we can make the right one. We don't have to interfere with (the number of groups seeking a franchise). The only job we have is to make a choice, and that's what we're going to do in December."

And Stein added: "We don't see (competition) as a deterrent. We don't feel that if we're in Tampa, the people in St. Petersburg won't become hockey fans, and we don't think if we're in St. Petersburg that people who live in Tampa won't become hockey fans. We think this area is ready for the National Hockey League, and that covers both of these cities."

The league will meet Dec. 4-8 at Palm Beach, will hear presentations from the nine competing groups in seven cities on Dec.

5, and is expected to announce that week how many (if any) teams will join the NHL for the 1992-93 season. It is presumed two teams will be added, but the league has never specifically said so. Other expansion committee members are paying visits to San Diego, Seattle, Houston and the Canadian communities of Hamilton and Ottawa. The league added a 22nd franchise, the San Jose (Calif.) Sharks, for the 1991-92 season as part of its projected growth to 28 teams by 2000.

Stein and Aubut (Ilitch returned to Detroit before an afternoon news conference) declined to compare the Tampa and St. Petersburg bids or to compare them to Miami's.

Aubut called the Dome "an incredible facility," but said it would have to be proven that it could function as a hockey facility for 40 home games a season. "That's an area they should cover in their presentation in December," he said. The Sept. 19 Los Angeles Kings-Pittsburgh Penguins exhibition that drew 25,581 fans, Aubut added, "was just one night."

The fact that the Tampa Bay Hockey Group's arena is only on the drawing board apparently is not a drawback to the Esposito effort.

The San Jose franchise was awarded, Stein said, "on the basis of a (hockey arena) that would be built if the franchise was awarded. We know they're playing for two years in the Cow Palace (in Daly City, Calif.) If they had come to us with the Cow Palace as their permanent facility, they would not have been given the franchise."

Stein and Aubut wouldn't compare the San Jose situation to St. Petersburg's, where the Dome is not principally a hockey arena. But Rutherford has said the team could build its own arena next to the Dome if problems arise.

"We all came away from (the TBHG presentation) with positive impressions of what they're planning to do," Stein said. But Esposito could not give them details of the TBHG ownership group. "They still have some time to go," Aubut said.

Esposito said he is heading to Japan on Nov.

11 to secure owners. Aubut said his Nordiques are owned in part by Daishowa, a Japanese pulp and paper company, which he identified as the biggest single employer in Quebec City. "And our league has no by-laws, no restrictions that would deal with the issue of nationality of equity owners," Stein said.

Earlier Thursday, Coliseum, Inc. (essentially the old Tampa Bay Baseball Group) and Esposito announced an agreement for the construction of an 18,500-seat hockey arena. The company holds the rights to the Tampa Sports Authority's land and can sell $81-million in tax-exempt bonds to finance it. The tax exemption expires Dec.

31.

Mel Lowell, a TBHG director, said the group has "material investors signed and ready to rock 'n' roll, as we say back in New York, domestic investors who can easily write the necessary ($5-million) down payment that we need by Dec.

5." He also said an arena could be completed in 15 months, in time for the 1992-93 season.

Coliseum, Inc. president Jim Cusack said the company declined to discuss the financing of the bond issue. "Obviously, every tax-free bond issue has got to be generated by a public body," he said. "The TSA would basically be the issuing agency. But the majority of the funds would come from the private sector and would be guaranteed by the private sector."

Tampa Bay area competitors

Florida Hockey Ltd.

Ownership: Compuware Corp., a Detroit-based computer software company with 1989 revenues of $123-million.

Arena: The $110-million Florida Suncoast Dome, built primarily for baseball (NHL prefers hockey-first arena) in downtown St. Petersburg; 18,000 seats with 12,000 more in an upper deck; lacks ice-making system and luxury suites.

Top names: Peter Karmanos Jr., founder and chief executive officer of Compuware. Jim Rutherford, Compuware's director of hockey operations and former NHL goalie.

Tampa Bay Hockey Group

Ownership: Undetermined.

Arena: Proposed $90-million, 18,500-seat hockey-first arena (with up to 3,500 premium seats and 88 suites) adjacent to Tampa Stadium. TBHG says it would play in Orlando or elsewhere if arena was not ready for the start of the 1992-93 season.

Top names: Phil Esposito, president of TBHG and former NHL center.

_ BRUCE LOWITT

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