Puck Doesn't Stop in Milwaukee : Hockey: NHL expansion eludes apparently favorable city amid reluctance of billionaire Pettit to endure long-term mediocrity and exorbitant entrance fee.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looks like an NHL arena. It actually looks nicer than most NHL arenas, big without being cavernous and modern without being stark.

It sounds like an NHL arena. It rocks with the cheers of nearly 9,000 fans at each hockey game, more than attend some games in Hartford and Washington.

Then why isn't Bradley Center home to an NHL team?

Although Milwaukee seems to have everything a professional league could want, major league hockey has passed it by. And judging by the NHL's recent expansions to warm-weather cities and covetous glances it is directing toward Seattle and Portland, Milwaukee probably won't get another chance to grab the NHL's brass ring.

The city boasts many attractions. A major league arena? It has the five-year-old Bradley Center, home to the NBA's Bucks. Hockey tradition? Milwaukee has long been the home of the International Hockey League's Admirals. Solid local ownership? Milwaukee has resident billionaire philanthropists Lloyd Pettit, formerly the Chicago Blackhawks' play-by-play announcer, and Jane Bradley, Pettit's wife and benefactor of local charities. Owners of the Admirals, they financed the Bradley Center and donated it to the city. They also contributed $2 million for the Pettit National Ice Center, a state-of-the-art speedskating rink used for the Olympic trials.

"We'd like an NHL franchise. That's the epitome of what you strive for," said Phil Wittliff, Admiral general manager. "However, we're happy with what we have."

They have one of hockey's most successful minor league franchises. The Admirals, who are not affiliated with an NHL club, last season drew an average of 9,117 to 41 home games, the first IHL team to average more than 9,000. They've led the league in attendance for the last five seasons and will probably be tops again. With ticket prices of $11 and $8, they provide an affordable night out for the family. Prices for the Bucks, who average almost 16,000 a game, range from $95 for courtside seats to $35, $32 and $24. Some seats are available at $8.

Milwaukee supports the NBA well and has shown it would do the same for the NHL. The Blackhawks and the Kings drew 16,292 to a neutral-site game at the Bradley Center last season, and 9,836 attended another neutral-site contest between the Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings.

Before he applied for an expansion team for the 1992-93 season, Pettit commissioned a market research study by the Gordon S. Black Corp. of Rochester, N.Y. The study found that fans in Milwaukee and its surrounding counties would buy about 11,200 tickets a game at a top price of $30 and that local businesses would add enthusiastic support.

The study concluded: "An NHL franchise will succeed in Milwaukee if Wisconsin Ice Hockey (the group formed to apply for a franchise) builds a quality, competitive team."

There's the rub. Concerned that the expansion draft would leave him the dregs of the league's talent and a mediocre roster, Pettit abruptly ended his long and ardent pursuit of NHL membership three years ago. He has not tried again.

"We have withdrawn Wisconsin Ice Hockey, Inc.'s application for (a) National Hockey League expansion franchise because such a franchise would result in a non-competitive team and an economically unsound franchise," he said in a statement on Oct. 10, 1990.

Pettit declined to be interviewed about his NHL hopes. However, a year ago, before the Kings and Blackhawks played at the Bradley Center, he said he had virtually given up on bringing NHL hockey to Milwaukee. The terms of the expansion, which added Tampa Bay and Ottawa to the league, soured him on trying for another expansion franchise.

As well they might. The NHL, which has limited scope and no national television contract, wanted a $50-million entrance fee. The NBA, riding a marketing and attendance surge, had charged $32.5 million to admit Charlotte and Miami in 1988-89, and Orlando and Minnesota in 1989-90. The NHL's price tag also drove off groups from Seattle, Houston, Hamilton, Canada, and St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Milwaukee was viewed by many, because of the arena and the applicant who clearly met the wealth parameter set by the league, as the strongest candidate," Bill Lear, a banker involved with the Seattle group, told the Milwaukee Sentinel after Pettit's withdrawal.

Pettit's ire was heightened by a deal given George and Gordon Gund when they sold the Minnesota North Stars in May, 1990. Without competition, the Gunds got an expansion team in San Jose for 1991-92 for $42.9 million, or $50 million less a $7.1-million kickback of future expansion fees.

"We felt it was a bad deal: $50 million, and the players that they were going to make available to us were going to make us a loser for a long time to come," Wittliff said. "So Mr. Pettit withdrew his application."

It was Pettit's misfortune that in the next expansion draft, better players were made available. The Mighty Ducks and the Florida Panthers, who also paid $50 million each, had a deeper talent pool to draw on and a good choice of goaltenders to make them instantly competitive.

"I would say (applying again) is something the Pettits would consider, but I think they'd prefer an existing team so it would be closer to being competitive," Wittliff said. "You're not going to get Montreal or Toronto to move here. The top-echelon teams are rarely available. But we feel the lower-echelon teams are probably closer to being competitive (than an expansion team)."

IHL Commissioner Tom Berry anticipates that Milwaukee will remain in his league.

"Mr. Pettit has done absolutely nothing to indicate he's going to change that," Berry said. "A few years ago, I would have said there's a good chance he'd go for an NHL team, but that's not been true for over two years."

Wittliff said Pettit has not spoken with any of the teams that have filed notice of intent to move. Those include the Edmonton Oilers, who are trying to move to Minneapolis' Target Center, and the Hartford Whalers. Wittliff also said that while he'd expect the Chicago Blackhawks to ask for indemnification if Milwaukee got a team because Chicago is only about 90 miles away, Hawk owner Bill Wirtz has never specified an amount. The Ducks paid $25 million of their $50-million admission fee to the Kings as indemnification.

Pettit last tried to buy an existing team in 1986, when he offered to purchase a minority interest in the St. Louis Blues with an option to buy majority interest. He backed out of the deal when he couldn't get assurance that he'd be allowed to move the Blues to Milwaukee.

Even if Pettit could lure a team, history stacks the odds against the move being approved. The last Midwestern city granted an expansion franchise was Kansas City in 1974-75, which lost the Scouts to Colorado after two seasons. The last Midwestern city to adopt a relocated team was Cleveland, which took in the California Seals in 1976-77. That didn't last, either: The team, renamed the Barons, merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978-79.

California has gotten two of the last five expansion teams, Florida two more--following movement in the U.S. population away from the Midwest and Northeast. Seattle, Phoenix and Portland are reportedly the top candidates for the next expansion, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he has no demographic plan.

"We're responding to areas where there is interest," he said. "There's a number of factors--the market, the building and most importantly the ownership. I'm not trying to diminish Milwaukee. We just haven't thought about it."

Additional expansion is probably not far off, but Bettman said no one has suggested Milwaukee to him. "We have two things in mind," he said. "First, we've got to have 26 stable, successful franchises. We've got to deal with Edmonton and Hartford and make sure the franchises we have are able to operate where they are. Then we look at the five most recent expansion teams to determine how competitive they are--Ottawa, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Anaheim and Florida. What everybody's concluding is the second (condition) is not going to take as long as we thought. Nevertheless, we have no timetable for another expansion."

If Milwaukee never gets an NHL team, Wittliff and the Pettits can live with it. The Admirals are a city fixture; Bradley Center a boon to civic pride.

"We've done well attendance-wise and we play in an arena that's as nice as any I've been in," Wittliff said. "It's one befitting the home of an NHL team."

All that's missing is the team.

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