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Coyotes' move would jeopardize Sabres' ticket base

Jeff Paikin just might be the Buffalo Sabres' best customer, and like a fair number of the NHL team's fans, he lives in Canada. Hamilton, specifically. The president of New Horizon Homes grew up in the city and his office is a six-minute walk from Copps Coliseum, but he is the proud owner of 22 season tickets for the Sabres.

"I think I own more season tickets for the Sabres than anyone else in Canada," says Paikin, who holds four for himself and distributes the rest among 18 friends and business associates, all of whom travel across the Canada-U.S. border to watch games at Buffalo's HSBC Arena.

For the owners of the Sabres, just six years out of bankruptcy, Paikin's fistful of tickets is proof of a business plan come to life.

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"Our season-ticket base is sold out," says Larry Quinn, the Sabres' minority owner and managing partner. "We have 15,000 season tickets. Coming out of bankruptcy, we had 5,800. Since then we've had to work very hard to get the franchise back and make it healthy, and when we were doing that, our big emphasis was Canada."

But if Research In Motion co-chief executive officer Jim Balsillie is successful in buying the Phoenix Coyotes and moving them to Copps in Hamilton, a question arises: How would a new Southern Ontario franchise affect its closest NHL neighbours - the Sabres and, to a lesser extent, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It's not something either ownership group wants to talk about, because the possible move remains uncertain and is being dealt with directly by the office of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"I have no comment," says Richard Peddie, CEO of Leafs owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "That's way above my pay grade."

Says Quinn: "Until it's something presented to us by the league, it's not something we're going to comment on."

But Quinn does allow that cross-border customers such as Paikin contribute greatly to the Sabres' financial well-being.

"It's very important," Quinn says. "Anywhere from 20 to 25 per cent of our fan base is from [Canada]and 10 to 15 per cent of our season-ticket holders are from the Niagara Peninsula and Hamilton. Every NHL franchise has a market area, and I don't think one of them would do well if they had to sacrifice 30 per cent of their geographic area to another team."

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How the Leafs might be affected is less clear. As the most powerful sports brand in the wealthiest and most densely populated part of Canada, there is a school of thought that the Leafs could benefit from having an upstart rival to the west in Hamilton.

"I think it could be a bonus for them," says Rick Powers, a sports marketing expert and associate dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "I don't think they'll lose anything and, if anything, they'll stand to gain from the synergies. A territorial rival creates more buzz, more interest, more coverage and is good for the NHL brand in a given territory, and I'll bet MLSE knows that.

"They're probably sitting back, waiting, hoping that they can get some kind of indemnification payment out of it, but it's win-win for them."

It's the Leafs' status as NHL fat cats - Forbes magazine ranks them as the most valuable franchise in hockey with a $448-million (all currency U.S.) price tag, compared to the $169-million valuation for the 21st-ranked Sabres - that some feel has given legs to Balsillie's effort to land another team for Southern Ontario.

"This is all about the little guy standing up and saying, 'I hate the Leafs and I'm not going to take it any more,' " says one NHL governor, who asked not to be identified. "They want another franchise, because the common person - not low-income, but middle- and upper-middle-class people - can't get to a game. All these kids out there are saying, 'Dad, why can't I go to a game?' Not a lot of people can afford it."

Which is part of the appeal the Sabres have held for Hamiltonians and residents of the Niagara Peninsula since they were added as an expansion franchise for the 1970-71 season.

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"I have a daughter whose birthday is on Boxing Day, and we took 20 people to a Sabres game one year," Paikin says. "There's no way in hell you could ever do that at a Leafs game. I'd have to take out a second mortgage on my house."

Paikin has a pair of Leafs tickets that he won't give up even if the Coyotes or another team land in Hamilton - "I'd never get them back," he says - but he says that it's likely the Sabres' season tickets would be in jeopardy if there was a Hamilton franchise.

"I'm sure over time people would gravitate to a team in Hamilton," says Paikin, a part owner of the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. "But I'd like to think I would support both."

Another Hamilton season-ticket holder isn't so sure the Sabres would suffer. Dave Foxcroft has four season tickets at HSBC Arena.

He became a Sabres fan listening to announcer Rick Jeanneret call the games on the radio as a kid in Hamilton and doesn't see himself giving up his tickets if a team comes to his hometown.

He figures Sabres fans closer to the border would remain fans of the team, and the Sabres might even benefit by having another team that would drive the gate at home games the way Leafs and Montreal Canadiens fans do when they visit Buffalo. "How could they not benefit from the excitement?" Foxcroft asks.

But that might be the fan in Foxcroft coming out. Elsewhere, the optimism about franchises in Buffalo and Hamilton co-existing is hard to find. As one NHL governor says: "Putting a team in Hamilton doesn't have to help the Leafs, it might help the league to have another team there. There's no law that says it has to help the Leafs. But if you put a team there and didn't do anything to deal with the consequences, it would really hurt Buffalo bad."

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