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Sam Donnellon | LUUKKOMOTION

Peter has emerged as a powerful player on Mr. Snider's crew

THE RELATIONSHIP was forged almost 2 decades ago, when Peter Luukko was among the executives hired to look after Ed Snider's money, and not the guy hired to look over the executives looking over Ed Snider's money - as he is today.

Anyway, Luukko, then barely over 30, had this great idea for a rib festival in the Spectrum parking lot. Recruited 150 of the greatest rib makers in the country, promoted the hell out of the event.

"And we lay an egg," he was saying in his modest Wachovia Center office earlier this week. "We lose at that time - which seemed like millions - 30 grand. And Ed's like, 'I loved that rib festival, great idea, try it again.'

"So next year we do it and there's rain and tornado warnings and we lose 60 grand. He comes into my office and says, 'Hey, tough luck, bad weather, I still love that idea.'

"And I said, 'Ed, you want to just fire me now? You trying to get rid of me? Don't bleed me to death. You're killing me.' ''

The moral of the story is Snider's response:

"Listen," the chairman of Comcast-Spectacor said, "I just don't want you to stop being creative and trying."

Two decades later, entrusted with the power over Snider's two organizations that Pat Croce once coveted, Luukko, 48, is doing a little or a lot of both, depending on the week, the month, the crisis, in his role as president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor.

Last year at this time the Flyers were in flames, their roster saddled with high-priced talent that was aging, injured or both, their new Luukko-endorsed general manager and new coach owning even less credentials than the men they replaced. One season later, that general manager, Paul Holmgren, has been lauded here and elsewhere for flipping the Flyers' roster through trades and free agency, making it an exciting and competitive team again.

This year the Sixers, again mired in a mess of their own making, have pushed Luukko into the public eye. After some behind-the-scenes evaluation, Luukko received permission from both Snider and New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn to offer Ed Stefanski the job of Sixers president/general manager. That, of course, entailed firing Billy King, who had received Snider's support repeatedly as criticism of the Sixers mounted.

Then again, so had Bob Clarke. Contrary to popular belief, Luukko insists that Clarke resigned voluntarily, that he "sat here on a Friday and said, 'I'm done.' ''

Several Comcast employees, however, on condition of anonymity, have said Luukko spent much of the months preceding that day probing into the operation of the Flyers, as he did last summer and this fall with the Sixers. Clarke's resignation and Ken Hitchcock's dismissal were simultaneous, further fueling the perception that Snider's all-time favorite player was forced out.

Regardless, this much is clear: With each move, the relative anonymity Luukko enjoyed while overseeing Snider's other endeavors in building management and food service dissipated. Once the guy who stood to the side of the podium during press conferences, Luukko now found himself on one flank of the new hire, with Snider on the other.

And for good reason. With 3 decades now separating him from his last championship, Snider has incrementally increased Luukko's involvement in the day-to-day operations of both teams, and has leaned heavily on his recommendations as well.

"I'm a good talent scout," Snider was saying yesterday, laughing, but seconds later growing serious.

Dead serious.

"Let's face it, I'm 75 years old," he says. "I don't want to leave the company I built in disarray."

Luukko and Snider also are well aware of the perception out there that Comcast is really calling the shots, and forcing their hand. Both insist that Brian and Ralph Roberts, who own 75 percent of the company, have better things to do and much bigger fish to fry.

"They let us do our thing," Snider says.

"When we have issues down here, we'll call Brian and ask, 'What's your take?' Sometimes you need somebody who is removed from your day-to-day situations," Luukko says. "But there's never a phone call that says, 'You will do this.' Or even, 'What are you guys doing?'

"They're not that type of people. They're into so much bigger than this. I mean, we don't even show up on their financial statement. Their money comes from millions of subscribers. For them, it's about content and creating the channel."

The son of a forklift mechanic - who, he says, reminds him of Snider - Luukko grew up in Auburn, Mass., even played a little hockey in high school. He went to the University of Massachusetts in nearby Amherst, graduated in 1981, and quickly turned an internship at the New Haven Coliseum into a job as the marketing director.

A job with Spectacor Management Group brought him to the Spectrum in 1985, but his contact with Snider was minimal.

"I was just a guy in the elevator," he said.

That changed when Luukko was sent to improve the quality and operation of the Los Angeles Coliseum and Sports Arena, both Spectacor properties.

Snider spent most of his time in Los Angeles back then, and saw Luukko gain praise for transforming and upgrading the Coliseum and Sports Arena.

"We spent an awful lot of time together," Snider says. "I realized the young man was sensational."

Since then, Luukko has done some great things for Snider. He is credited with starting Global Spectrum, a building management group that has grown from seven to 72 buildings in 7 years of operation. He involved the company in the ticketing and food-service businesses - although the rib festival has yet to see a renaissance.

And he was integral to the construction and early operation of the Wachovia Center.

"He did a budget for the building way in advance of the first year," Snider says. "He was right on. It was remarkable. But on top of that, he's just so tremendous under fire. He just solves the problem."

That solidified Luukko, already a board member, as a member of the small inner circle of longtime Snider confidants - guys like Fred Shabel, Sandy Lipstein and Phil Weinberg.

These days, he holds more titles than any of them, too.

These days, he holds the keys to the two entities that have made Ed Snider a household name in the Delaware Valley.

And he's not at all unhappy if most of those households are still unaware of that.

"I don't think my parents know what I do," Luukko says, laughing. "They'll still call and tell me, 'Hey, they just made a trade.'

"And I'll say, 'Yeah, they did.' '' *

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