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Diehard Predators fans rally to sell tickets and try to keep team in town

"I wanted to buy some tickets," he said.

Tayes and his uncle, Chris Turner, teamed up Thursday and bought a 13-game package each - their first ticket purchase - for next season during a 15-hour rally held by a local group trying to sell enough season tickets to keep the Predators' lease in effect after the 2007-08 season.

The team's future ownership is still undecided. A local investors group has been given the chance to keep the Predators in Nashville after meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday in New York.

Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's $220-million bid stalled after a letter of intent was signed in May.

Whoever owns the team would have to spend millions of dollars to break the arena lease if the "Our Team" effort helps the Predators average a minimum of 14,000 in paid attendance this season. The team averaged 13,815 for 2006-07.

NHL officials and current owner Craig Leipold monitored the rally to see how Nashville would respond.

"Our Team" chairman Ron Samuels, president of a local bank, said the group's original goal was 300 season tickets sold Thursday. They upped it to 500 after reaching 250 with seven hours left.

"I can't imagine this is not a strong message when you consider that last year at this same time total new sales for tickets from what I understand were somewhere around 600 to 750," Samuels said. "We're well over that now at almost 1,500 tickets.

"That's a 100 per cent increase. That's pretty strong. I would think this is certainly showing the NHL and others that Nashville's thirsty for hockey."

The "Our Team" group would like to break the 14,000 minimum and hit 16,000 to help the team's eventual owner field a more competitive team.

The Predators are coming off a season in which they finished third in the NHL regular season with a franchise-high 110 points, only to lose to the San Jose Sharks for the second consecutive time in the first round of the playoffs.

Anticipating a lower budget for next season, the Predators let top scorer Paul Kariya leave as free agent, and traded top goalie Tomas Vokoun, defenceman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell.

Leipold, awarded the expansion franchise in June 1997, announced in May he was selling the team after losing $70 million in the club's 10-year history.

On Thursday, fans had the chance to enjoy a live band at midday, eat $5 box lunches provided by neighboring hotels and check out seats they wanted to buy while watching highlights on the scoreboard.

A bigger event planned Thursday night was to feature the team's mascot, Gnash, unveiling the Predators' new sweater, with defenceman Ryan Suter and forward Vern Fiddler, a live band and Tennessee's first lady, Andrea Conte.

David Freeman, chief executive officer of 36 Venture Capital, and Herb Fritch, CEO of HealthSpring Inc., are part of the Nashville group bidding for the Predators. Both men planned to stop by the rally to thank the organizers.

Freeman said everyone has agreed not to discuss their talks in public, including their offer, but said everything is moving in the right direction with Leipold and the NHL giving Nashville another chance to show it wants the Predators.

"That's a wonderful position to be in, to know that it's in our hands now," Freeman said. "Craig Leipold couldn't have been any more generous to allow this city another opportunity.

"I don't know if people will recognize what Craig has really done here and what a great gift he's given to the city to allow it a chance to more or less buy its own hockey team back."


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