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The Nashville Predators have a third party officially involved in what has become a turtle race to purchase the struggling National Hockey League franchise.

A local group, headed by health-care executives David Freeman and Herb Fritch and containing nearly 30 investors, put forth its bid to buy the Predators and keep them in Nashville.

The group's spokesperson, lawyer Chase Cole, and Predators' senior vice-president of communications Gerry Helper would not confirm the local syndicate's proposal to team owner Craig Leipold, but a source connected with the group answered in the affirmative.

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"There is a bid that has been put forth," the source said. "I guess now the two sides will enter a period of negotiation, but what form that will take is anybody's guess."

Helper politely declined comment and said the statement Leipold issued last Thursday, when a report indicated he was about to announce an "exclusive deal with a new bidder," California financier William (Boots) Biaggio III, still stands.

The statement read, "We are currently free to explore any and all options regarding the sale of the Nashville Predators. However, until and unless there is a binding agreement in place, we do not plan to comment on the status of Predators ownership."

The status of the Predators ownership was about to change 41 days ago when Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie signed a non-binding letter of intent to purchase the NHL club for an above-the-market price tag of $238-million (all figures U.S.).

Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion, remains in the hunt to buy the club. Leipold sent his application to the league to be reviewed, but the holdup has been the league's refusal to address Balsillie's desire to relocate the club to Hamilton.

Although indications point to the league doing everything in its control to make sure Balsillie does not become the Predators owner, if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was have a change of heart and give Balsillie approval for a move to Hamilton, Leipold would be one happy ex-owner of the Predators.

The expansion fee for the franchise in 1998 was $80-million, but he was on the hook for $55-million because the city picked up the rest of cost. It has been reported that Biaggio's bid was close to $190-million, but the amount of yesterday's bid by the local group is unknown.

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What is known is that all this uncertainty has diminished the Predators roster that finished with 110 points and third overall in the league this past season. Although they signed goalie Chris Mason to a three-year, $6-million extension yesterday and lured second-tier free agents Jed Ortmeyer, Radek Bonk and Greg de Vries on Monday, they lost another standout in Paul Kariya, the team's leading point-getter who decided to sign with the St. Louis Blues because of the uncertainty of the Predators ownership.

"I really liked playing there," he said when introduced by the Blues in St. Louis yesterday. "I liked it there so much that I considered signing there for one year, but then I may have to pack up next year and look for another place to play."

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