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Nashville group preparing to sign letter of intent for Predators @NHLdotcom

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -The local group of businessmen bidding to buy the Predators - and likely keep them in Nashville - are close enough to finalizing their offer that a letter of intent giving the group exclusive negotiating rights could be signed Wednesday.

The businessmen working with Predators owner Craig Leipold would like to complete the purchase before the season starts in October.

Asked Tuesday if the group was close to finishing up paperwork, Herb Fritch, chief executive officer of HealthSpring Inc., and a member of the local group, said they're near the letter of intent stage.

"This is not a final purchase and sale deal. There's still a significant step to happen. It's the first significant concrete step toward getting there," Fritch said.

But he deferred questions to David Freeman, chief executive officer of 36 Venture Capital LLC, or attorney Chase Cole, who has been working with the group. Freeman wrote in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon that something might happen Wednesday.

A spokesman working with the local group said any announcement involving a letter of intent would come from the Predators.

Gerry Helper, the Predators' vice president of communications, said he did not have anything scheduled yet for Wednesday.

Leipold signed a letter of intent in May with Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to sell his franchise for $220 million. California businessman William "Boots" Del Biaggio offered $190 million, and the local bid is believed to be $180 million.

Freeman was among the businessmen who met with Leipold and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York on July 18. Freeman credited Leipold then with working with the Nashville group in offering a hometown discount.

Fritch said the group would like to have a binding agreement by mid-August, giving the league's board of governors enough time to inspect the prospective owners and the deal. Receiving final approval before the season opener Oct. 4 would keep the transaction easier all around.

Leipold has said he is selling the team because he has lost $70 million since being awarded the franchise in June 1997. He tried for years to attract local businessmen to buy minority shares of the team.

The Predators averaged 13,815 in paid attendance despite a franchise-best 110 points and finishing third in the NHL. Leipold has exercised a clause in the contract forcing the team to average 14,000 paid attendance this season or break the arena lease.

The team traded away the rights to defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell in June, traded away top goaltender Tomas Vokoun and let top scorer Paul Kariya leave as a free agent in July to pare the payroll.

Fritch said local ownership might help the Predators crack a corporate market that Leipold couldn't reach.

"It puts the ownership in local hands, and our intention is to keep them here if at all possible. Ultimately, that is going to depend on the support of the city and buying tickets, so on and so forth. Not to say Craig's interests were a whole lot different than that," Fritch said.

"At the same time, he didn't have the allegiance the way somebody who lives here has."

Ron Samuels, a chairman of a separate group working to help the Predators boost season ticket sales, said ticket sales have been continuing well since a 15-hour rally on July 19. They originally set 3,000 as the number of new season ticket sales they hoped to reach before the opener.

"I think the numbers now are easily reachable, and we'll probably beat it. I think we'll end up and be over 10,750 to 11,000 tickets before the season starts," he said.

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