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DEADLINE PASSES, BUT OWNERS STILL TALK TO ONLY ONE PARTY

Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment has decided to continue talking exclusively to would-be buyer Oren Koules.

That indicates negotiations are making substantial progress. A deal could be announced as early as next week.

The team, St. Pete Times Forum lease and 51/2 acres near the arena are expected to be purchased for $200-million.

Palace Sports granted Koules exclusive negotiating rights in an attempt to forge a purchase agreement by the end of January. That deadline passed, but Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said Friday, "It's safe to assume both sides are talking and only to one another. There's nothing new to report. However, any exclusive negotiating deadlines that existed have been waived.''

Neither Koules nor Palace Sports CEO Tom Wilson were available for comment.

Koules, a Hollywood producer, heads OK Hockey, which includes business partner Mark Berg and, presumably though never confirmed by Koules, California banker Russell Belinsky.

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