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This ice may finally give Buffalo a good reputation

As Sabres aim for hockey's Stanley Cup, a whole city craves winner

His name is Al Isch, he has lived in Buffalo all of his 65 years, and he has but one wish. "All I ask for is one, just one championship," says Mr. Isch, who works as a security guard in the shadow of Marine Midland Arena, home of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.

The words of one man could serve as the collective howl of a city.

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Perhaps more than any other place, Buffalo is hungry for a winner. The city is notorious for blizzards and shuttered steel mills, yet - unfairly, in the minds of residents - unrenowned for its quality of life. Which leaves it craving obvious association with a winner.

The sporting opportunity arises for the fifth time in the 1990s when the Buffalo Sabres play the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup finals. The best-of-seven series opens tonight in Dallas.

The quest for a major-sport championship (the NFL Bills lost four straight Super Bowls earlier this decade) - and the luster it would bring this Rust Belt city - generated serious Sabres zeal.

The 6,000 tickets available for a potential of three home games sold out last week in eight minutes, disappointing thousands of fans who slept outside the arena. Many an aluminum-foiled "Stanley Cup" occupy downtown storefront windows. Radio talk-show hosts have abandoned standard fare of political outrages for puck chat.

A professional sports title would offer something more valuable than a trophy: proof of civic worth.

"That's part of what makes the [pro] teams so important here," says Harvey Pines, a social psychologist at Buffalo's Canisius College. "It's a way of standing on a level field with communities that have more visibility or are lauded for things we aren't known for."

Bob Schreck puts it more simply. "Chicago or New York can win a world title and forget about it in a few years. In this town, they'd still be talking about it 50 years later," says the lawyer, who attended all four of the Bills' Super Bowl losses.

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The Sabres reflect the city - undervalued and unappreciated. Buffalo was seeded seventh of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. But it beat Ottawa, Boston, and Toronto (losing just three of 15 games) to reach the finals.

They did it despite flying hockey's version of economy class. Buffalo's payroll is in the bottom third of the league. Star goaltender Dominik Hasek makes $8 million, but only five other players make seven figures. The Stars, in contrast, have the second-highest payroll in the league, with 15 players making at least $1 million. Dallas signed superstar free agent Brett Hull to a three-year, $17.5 million deal last summer. Also, Dallas is in the finals just six years after taking Minnesota's North Stars. The Sabres, meanwhile, are in their 29th year of Stanley Cup futility, having lost to the 1975 Philadelphia Flyers in their only other finals appearance.

THE cities have little in common other than notoriety for this century's presidential assassinations: William McKinley in Buffalo in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

With more than 3 million residents, Dallas is triple Buffalo's size, and its vibrant economy attracted 500,000 transplants this decade. Its football team, the Cowboys, won three Super Bowls in the '90s - two at the expense of the Bills. "If we lose to Dallas again," laments Nancy Kaltenbacher, a Sabres fan since the '75 Cup final loss, "we'd never live it down."

Buffalo is one of the few places the '90s economic boom sidestepped. It is home to not a single Fortune 500 company (Dallas boasts 16). Its image isn't helped by associations with O.J. Simpson, a former Bills star, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, from nearby Pendleton. Lost in the swirl of negativity is Buffalo's art museum, theaters, and a 30-minute "rush hour." Instead, the nation fixates on the rare major blizzards and Buffalo's famous culinary export - the chicken wing.

Which brings us back to the quest for a major sports championship. "If the Sabres won ... at least we'd be seen in a good light, even if it is only sports," says Sally Purcell while stocking up on team T-shirts at the arena's gift shop.

That's all they ask. One championship. Just one.

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