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NHL Needs to Know by March When New Teams Can Start : Hockey: League imposes a deadline so it can realign and set a schedule for 26 teams in 1993-94--if necessary.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The NHL has told its two newest members that they must inform league officials by March whether they’ll be able to begin operations for the 1993-94 season or wait until 1994-95.

Conditional franchises were awarded by the NHL last month to the Walt Disney Co., for a team in Orange County, and to Blockbuster Entertainment chief Wayne Huizenga, for a team in South Florida. The Orange County team is expected to play at the Anaheim Arena and the South Florida team is expected to call the Miami Arena home, but neither team has secured a lease.

“At some point in March, they will have to advise the league and owners so we can go ahead with realignment and with a schedule,” NHL spokesman Gary Meagher said Wednesday. “It’s their call right now. The likelihood is that both will be prepared to play next season.”

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Meagher said the league did not specify a date in March. He also said “it’s our expectation” both will enter the NHL at the same time, but plans have been made in case only one is ready to start play next season.

“Everything we’re playing around with is for two teams (to enter the league) next season,” Meagher said.

John Nicoletti, marketing manager for the Anaheim Arena, said negotiations are continuing between the Disney Corp. and Ogden Corp.--which will manage the arena--to determine the team’s start-up date and other conditions related to the building’s lease.

Nicoletti also said the hockey team is closer to satisfying another condition imposed by the NHL: having 10,000 prospective season-ticket holders.

“We have a priority list that was started when ground was broken for the arena, and that has over 8,000 names,” Nicoletti said. “That’s for all events, but at last count, 80% were interested in possible hockey season tickets. A lot of people call up and say, ‘I’d like two tickets,’ or ‘I’m interested in four tickets.’ I don’t think we’ll have a problem.”

The NHL’s Board of Governors on Tuesday established guidelines for an expansion draft in June to stock the two incoming teams. The 24 existing teams will be allowed to protect one goaltender, five defensemen and nine forwards, and players with one year’s professional experience or less would be exempt. Of the players available, one defenseman and two forwards must have played at least 40 games this season or 70 games over the last two seasons. The Anaheim and South Florida teams will each draft 24 players.

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In a second expansion draft phase a week later, the two new teams will be allowed to protect one goalie, five defensemen and 10 forwards. From the pool of the 16 remaining players, the teams added in the NHL’s previous expansions--Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose--will each be allowed to select two players. However, Anaheim and South Florida can each lose a maximum of one goalie, one defenseman and one forward.

In the June entry draft, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose would have the first three picks if they finish with the NHL’s three lowest point totals, with Anaheim and South Florida picking fourth and fifth. Regardless of the records they compile if they begin play next season, Anaheim and South Florida have been guaranteed the first two picks in the 1994 entry draft.

The name of the Anaheim team--or more likely the name of the arena--probably will reflect a major corporate sponsorship. Nicoletti said he was unaware a decision had been made to name the team Express because of a financial partnership with the American Express Co., but said such a move may be part of the discussions between Disney and Ogden.

“We haven’t been shy about it. We’ve been aggressive in seeking a potential building sponsor, like the Great Western Forum (in Inglewood) or the United Center (being built in Chicago),” Nicoletti said.

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