The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Tuesday, January 14, 1997             TAG: 9701140201
SECTION: FRONT                   PAGE: A8   EDITION: FINAL 
SERIES: NHL In Hampton Roads 
DATELINE: NEW YORK                          LENGTH:   94 lines


George Shinn arrived Monday for the National Hockey League expansion meetings an acknowledged underdog. But based on the first of two days of formal presentations from expansion applicants to NHL owners, Shinn might have one advantage few of his competitors can claim: an arena deal.

Five of the six groups to make their formal pitches to the NHL's executive committee Monday did so with no firm plans for a long-term arena.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stressed at NHL meetings last month in Phoenix that a done arena deal is a must before a city will receive a franchise. Meeting with the news media after the closed presentations Monday, applicants said most questions from owners were about arena plans, and most admitted they didn't have the right answers.

``A new arena in Houston is at best in the talking stages,'' said Tony Guanci, an arena development specialist for one of three applicants from Houston.

Shinn, who has applied to bring an NHL expansion franchise to Hampton Roads, reached an agreement last week with the Hampton Roads Partnership for a $143 million, 20,000-seat arena in downtown Norfolk.

The deal can hardly be described as done. It still needs approval from 15 localities, the state legislature and the Hampton Roads Sports Facility Authority. But when Shinn makes a 45-minute presentation to the NHL's executive committee at 9 a.m. today, his arena deal will be the second-best yet heard.

Only Hamilton, Ontario, whose hopes for landing an NHL expansion franchise are rated even by the Canadian media as nonexistent, presented the NHL with a rock-solid arena package on Monday.

Three groups from Houston, including two who are fighting in court over the lease at The Summit arena, admitted that the building is not a satisfactory long-term home for hockey because of its small size and lack of club seating and luxury suites.

Columbus, Ohio, came to New York with financing not yet completed for an arena - $8 million remains to be raised from private sources, and the plan must be approved by voters in a May referendum.

``In our position (as an underdog), we probably would have been kicked out of the saddle if we didn't have a plan,'' Shinn said.

The league's executive committee questioned the six groups closely on several points that Shinn can expect to be asked about today, including the strength of the ownership group, including the owner's financial commitment to a market, and the size and strength of the market.

The competition gets tougher today - Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., Oklahoma City and Raleigh also will make presentations. Atlanta's presentation will be led by media magnate Ted Turner.

Conventional wisdom has Atlanta, Nashville and Houston as the favorites for what are expected to be four expansion teams, with Hampton Roads among many vying for the fourth spot.

A city-by-city look at Monday's presentations.

HOUSTON: Three groups are bidding for a franchise, including Chuck Watson, a Houston businessman who owns the Houston Aeros minor league hockey team; Leslie Alexander, a New York native who owns the Houston Rockets NBA team; and the Maloof family of New Mexico, which sold the Rockets to Alexander. Watson, who runs The Summit, may have solidified his role as the favorite by adding billionaire Bob McNair, CEO of Houston-based Cogen Technologies, to his ownership group. Alexander has sued Watson seeking to be released from his Summit lease, which expires in 2003. In a long, tedious day of press briefings by the applicants, Gavin Maloof provided some comic when he said: ``The Maloof family is the best choice for a Houston NHL franchise. . . . We're not suing anybody.''

COLUMBUS: Officials touted the region as the nation's largest without a major sports franchise. Columbus' metro area of 1.4 million is smaller than Hampton Roads at 1.6 million, but officials noted that the Ohio city has 7 million residents within 100 miles of downtown. Nonetheless, Ron Pizzuti, the Columbus businessman heading the group, said: ``The biggest concern (league owners) expressed was about an arena. If they choose Columbus, they will come if we build it and they won't come if we don't.''

HAMILTON: The longest of long shots made a grand try with an impressive list of Ontario government officials, including Minister of Economic Development William Saunderson and Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Capps. Officials emphasized that the Toronto-Hamilton area has a population of 6 million, large enough for two teams. ``It's the best market for hockey in the world,'' Hamilton Mayor Bob Morrow said.

ST. PAUL, Minn.: The delegation was led by Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, who along with other officials did their best to convince the NHL that the state will approve funding for an arena plan. The state would provide much of the revenue for a $51 million renovation through rebates of taxes generated at the arena in a plan approved by the St. Paul City Council. MEMO: Today's Rhinos itinerary: 9 a.m., presentation before NHL owners

in New York; 10:30 a.m., news conference in New York; 4 p.m., news

conference at Norfolk Waterside Marriott; 7 p.m.: ``Rhino Rally'' on



by CNB