Bankruptcy Cases Could Grow

The Buffalo Sabres' bankruptcy filing Monday and the Ottawa Senators' insolvency aren't juicy topics. And with so much to enjoy this season, such as Mario Lemieux's pursuit of another scoring title, the rise of the Vancouver Canucks and the rebound of the Dallas Stars, it seems a shame to let finances dominate the news.

Tedious though these subjects might be, they can't be ignored. They're the elephants in the NHL's living room, probably the first of a giant herd.

About half a dozen other teams are for sale and have been for a while, among them the Mighty Ducks, and precious few buyers are on the horizon. Without an idea of what costs will be after the labor agreement expires in 2004, few investors seem eager to put their dollars into owning a hockey club. The Senators, Sabres and other clubs could be moved or folded.

The Senators filed for bankruptcy protection Thursday. Their majority owner, Rod Bryden, has until today to submit a bid to buy the club but has said he can't do it alone; New York billionaire Nelson Peltz is reported to be his financial angel but hasn't confirmed that. If Bryden bids, the Senators' creditors can reject his bid before Jan. 24 if they decide it doesn't provide enough repayment. After that, anyone can bid, but there's no line forming outside the Corel Centre.

The Sabres filed a petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday in Buffalo, N.Y., a procedure expected to facilitate a reorganization of the club's finances and its sale to Todd Berman and Mark Hamister. The Kings took the same step in September 1995 to accelerate the sale of the franchise from Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff to current owners Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr. It's a way to protect the prospective new owners from debts they don't expect. The Sabres have an estimated $238 million in debts and $68 million in assets.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday granted Berman and Hamister a second two-week extension to assemble financing for their proposed purchase, which they've said is conditional on receiving a $33-million aid package from the state of New York that includes refinancing a $22.9-million loan.

In sum, they're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"It's the issue of the day, no question," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said of the troubled clubs. "We are all concerned. We're just here filling a role for a while, but the game itself has to be looked after and franchises have to be looked after and we want it to be successful. What greater business to be involved in than the National Hockey League?

"We pay attention to what happens elsewhere, as much as we get wrapped up in our own situations. We all want Ottawa to survive and thrive and be in good shape so that when we step aside, the next group will have their turn."

A short-term rescue package put in place Thursday gave the Senator players money they were due Jan. 1. Those who had direct deposit got funds in their accounts Friday and others got paper checks when the team returned early Sunday from a four-game trip. Presumably, they were at the bank early Monday.

After Bryden hinted that the club's future depended on fans buying more tickets, fans responded by purchasing about 2,700 tickets over the weekend. As of Monday, fewer than 500 tickets remained for today's game against Tampa Bay. Prices were cut on some seats for the rest of January and February to stimulate sales.

Although the Sabres and Senators have problems unique to their situations, Murray sees enough common problems for everyone to be concerned.

"In our situation here, you have to win to fill the house," he said. "A lot of teams that don't make the playoffs have trouble doing that, and we've had a history now of a couple of years of not being in the playoffs. You have to battle financially to keep your payroll in order and to get your revenues up, so they somewhat match."

It's a battle that might be lost in Ottawa, Buffalo and elsewhere, ultimately changing the landscape of the NHL.

Big Success in Big D

Five prospective buyers have shown interest since Stars' owner Tom Hicks announced several months ago he would sell the club so he could devote more time and money to his baseball team, the Texas Rangers. So far none has made an offer.

In the meantime, everything is business as usual for the Stars, who are jockeying with the Vancouver Canucks for the West lead. The Stars haven't dumped salaries; in fact, they signed Bill Guerin to a five-year, $45-million free-agent contract last summer and increased their payroll from $57.3 million to $61.7 million.

"Mr. Hicks decided to sell after we had the team in place, so it's really been a nonissue," General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "The approach we try to take in among management and coaches is, if the team has success on the ice, whoever buys the team will, hopefully, want to keep it together. If it's done anything for me, personally, it's motivated us to have as much success as possible.

"I think winning sells in Dallas."

According to goaltender Marty Turco, players don't dwell on sale talk.

"The effect on us and our preparation to play hockey games has been minimal, at most," he said. "It's nothing we can control. I guess it could be different, like the Ottawa situation, and it could wear on you a little bit. But our paychecks are coming in. For the most part, it's a nonissue."

Net Gains

Turco's exceptional goaltending is a key factor in the Stars' success. But even he is amused to see his statistics nearly identical to those of his predecessor, Ed Belfour, whose struggles last season were a prime reason the Stars did not make the playoffs and let Belfour depart as a free agent.

Turco, in his first season as the No. 1 goalie, has a 1.83 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and 20 wins. Belfour, who signed with Toronto, has a 2.07 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and 20 wins.

"To me, it was no surprise the way he's playing, but it's certainly fun and exciting for me to see him up there, having a great year, great numbers," Turco said. "It might be a little ironic that we're neck and neck in a lot of things, but I think it bodes well for both of us."

No Ducking the Challenge

After losing their poise and their hold on a playoff spot during a 0-6-1 skid, the Ducks appeared to be slipping well behind the Western Conference pack. By rallying to defeat the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues in successive games, they showed they're not done yet.

"We were sinking like a rock," Coach Mike Babcock said. "We couldn't stop the bleeding.

"We played real well against Philly [a 1-0 loss Jan. 3], and Edmonton came in here and out-willed us [in a 1-0 Oiler victory Wednesday]. It comes down to will, how bad do you want to be in a competitive environment. I'd like to think our will is strong, and we're going to keep pushing."

Center Adam Oates agreed.

"If you look at our conference, you have a couple of bad weeks and you're in real trouble," he said. "You've got to win 'em while you can.... We should not be that surprised that we're playing good hockey. We should expect to."

Oates earned the 1,043rd assist of his career Sunday with a pass off the left-wing boards that set up Niclas Havelid's winning goal. Oates is six behind Gordie Howe for sixth place on the all-time list. Wayne Gretzky is the leader at 1,963.

"It just shows how fortunate I am to be playing so long and with so many good players," said Oates, whose career average of .842 assists a game is second only to Gretzky's average of 1.32. "I never thought I'd get 1,000 assists and I was fortunate enough to do that last year. I haven't thought beyond that."

Slap Shots

All-Star voting by fans often produces illogical results, such as Ranger defenseman Brian Leetch being voted to the East starting lineup even though he has sat out most of the season because of injuries. But there's no reason for indignation.

Fans deserve to have a voice in a game that's supposedly played for them, and it's a small return for the exorbitant prices they pay for tickets, parking, souvenirs and food.

Dave King, who did a solid job coaching the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, didn't deserve to be fired. But the impatience and ego of GM Doug MacLean prevailed, making King the fifth coach to lose his job this season. Any team would be well served with King as a talent evaluator or scout.... Former Colorado coach Bob Hartley is the favorite to get the Atlanta Thrashers' coaching job, left open when Curt Fraser was dumped. Hartley interviewed with GM Don Waddell last week. He'd have his work cut out for him with a team that has some scoring talent but is clueless defensively.

Luc Robitaille has no goals or points in his last 12 games with the Detroit Red Wings and four goals and 17 points in 43 games this season.

Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who won the 2002 Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey and was expected to be a catalyst on Calgary's power play, was benched for four games by new Coach Darryl Sutter and has been getting one-on-one sessions with new assistant coach Jim Playfair.

Vancouver's Markus Naslund, who has a league-leading 31 goals, is on pace to become the second Swedish player to score 50 goals in an NHL season. The first was Hakan Loob, who had 50 for Calgary in 1987-88.... New Jersey's Joe Nieuwendyk is one goal from 500 and 16 points from 1,000.

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