Today, sporting goods fans, we close our three-part ramble on the coming — and eventual going — of ice hockey in Richmond. This is Volume 17 of the old man’s check of his rear view mirror after 47 years of perpetual second childhood (ie, writing sports for The Times-Dispatch): “If They’d Ask Me, I Could Write a Book, Part Deux.”
First, a point of fact: I was not a witness to the glory years (days?) when your Richmond Renegades won a championship (1994-95) and should have won another (1998-99), when every game with John Brophy and the Hampton Roads Goonirals was a true-blue — make that true-red — dukeout not to be missed. Hit ‘em again, Trevor … harder, harder. No, the honors belonged to legendary colleague John Packett, who was there for it all: every goal, every fight, every cheap shot, every nasty comment in the heat of the many moments that made this a rivalry worthy of twice the price of admission, Maybe more.
John also was the reporter of record to scribble finis to hockey in RVA, at least for way, way down the road, or until they replace the shuttered Coliseum — which doesn’t appear to be any time soon. He watched and documented the last years of the second coming of Allan B. Harvie Jr., and the Renegades (2006-2009). Today’s tome will cover recollections of the demise of Renegades I, the short, if arguably too long, three-year life of the next team, the RiverDogs, and, finally, the startup of Harvie II. Drop the puck, and we’re off and skating. Let the memory-man game resume.
If you were among the hundreds of dedicated fans, who never wavered despite issues of daytime-soap-opera proportions that occasionally detracted from the game itself, Harvie was your man. First, the hustling Canadian from Alberta gave welcomed rebirth to hockey here following a nine-year absence with Renegades I. Then, after hearing, he said, “something I never thought I’d hear … ‘WE WANT HARVIE! WE WANT HARVIE!’ … at a RiverDogs’ game,” Harvie decided to try it again with Renegades II.
Why not? In 1990, Harvie had $1,000 in his pocket and $2,000 in the bank when he was granted an East Coast Hockey League franchise after commissioner Pat Kelly failed to do his due diligence. Three years later, Harvie sold the team for seven figures. “And two years after that they won a championship,” he recalled recently. “Did I get a ring? Yes … but they spelled my name wrong — Harv-e-y … I didn’t care.”
That was pretty much the attitude about the first Renegades by the turn of the decade. They had done well on the ice and, for the most part, at the box office — then, with the coming of new ownership, hit the skids. Only two of the first 11 teams failed to qualify for the playoffs. That was matched by the last two. Attendance figures are always suspect, but the teal, black and purple officially averaged 5,199 — from a high of 6,487 in 1995-96 when they posted their best regular-season record (46-11-13), to a low of 3,547 in 2002-03, their 13th — and last — campaign.
The beginning of the end came in 2000 when a group from Colorado took over the franchise from Harry Feuerstein, paying off accumulated debt said to be more than $1 million. Bill Stewart and three partners replaced Feuerstein, who had taken a major financial bath as a result of operating the Renegades for six seasons as well as indoor football’s Richmond Speed and a roller hockey team. Surely you recall the Virginia Vultures! One season (1997-98) and world-record 571 penalty minutes in 20 games (16-4-0)?
Stewart, not to be confused with the former VMI and West Virginia football coach, or NHL defenseman and coach (Islanders), or baseball umpire, of the same name, ran the Renegades with titles of president and director of hockey operations. He had a knack for alienating people. As did his wife, who also played an executive role.
One day, during his time here, Stewart fired radio play-by-play-man deluxe John Emmett, for reasons never explained then re-hired him the same day AFTER the team bus left for a matchup in Trenton, N.J., that night. I benefited from the ongoing Keystone Kops routine, driving Emmett to and from the game, laughing all the way at his stories. He has a million of them.
Mark Kaufman, the Renegades’ sensitive sometimes-to-a-fault coach, wasn’t a favorite of Stewart — and vice versa — which wasn’t lost on the players. The discord with the front office upstairs was felt in the dressing room downstairs. The 2000-01 entry, with Hampton Roads Admirals’ refugee Rod Taylor (team-best 34 goals) and tough guys Brian Goudie (204 penalty minutes) and Dan Vandermeer (268) plus rookie goalie Ranislav Stana (2.56 goals-against average), never lived up to its potential. The Renegades finished the regular schedule 33-30-10, making the playoffs for the last time and bowing out in the first round.
By the 2002-03 season, Kaufman’s four-year tour behind the bench was over. Gord Dineen replaced Kaufman, who probably was relieved at being relieved. Also fading away was Stewart, leaving local investor Tony Markel, president and COO of the Markel Corp., a Richmond-based specialty insurer, in charge of the sinking pirates ship. It was, to say the least, a listless, crowd-displeasing final go-round. The Renegades, always at their best when they were at their toughest, averaged 19 PIM en route to a 35-31-6 finish. Dull was the operative description from their unhappy fans.
Of the 17 players who appeared opening night, seven suited up for the finale, a 4-3 shootout loss at home to Roanoke Valley before an alleged crowd of 3,113. Vandermeer was the only Renegade to appear in every game. Sandy Lemarre scored the franchise’s final goal, coming at 16:36 of the second period. Sandy who?
On March 31, 2003, I bade farewell to my fourth team — Robins (1971-76), Wildcats (1976-77), Rifles (1979-81) — when latest — and last — Renegades I general manager Paul Gamsby announced, “We can’t make it happen any more.” Not that anyone should have been surprised. The franchise was that close to being shut down a year earlier after ownership was upset with the city and SMG, which ran the Coliseum, over a $1 surcharge on every ticket sold. The Renegades lost in the expensive neighborhood of $400,000 in 2002-03 and about $1.8 million over the final three years.
Naturally, SMG thought it provided the Renegades more than enough assistance, including rent and parking revenue, designed “to give them a better chance to survive,” said facility manager Larry Wilson, who later left town to become the first manager of John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville. There was talk at the time about plans for construction of a 7,500-seat facility in Chesterfield County, with the Renegades being the initial tenant. “We couldn’t wait,” Gamsby said. If they had, they’d still be waiting. Like so many things here, it was all talk, no serious commitment.
Looking back, Markel insisted, “I had a helluva good time … for a while.” So he dropped a cool $600,000 of his own money. There’s a price for everything, right? Would he do it again? “No,” Markel said, adding …“but I don’t have any regrets.”
The Renegades had barely put up their “Gone Fishing … Won’t Return” sign when along came another hustler with another league for our hockey viewing pleasure. Dr. Eric Margenau, a sports psychologist and buyer and seller of teams with other people’s money, told us no question the United Hockey League would be our best fit. Trust him. It was cheaper, by $400,000 a year, to operate a team in the UHL, he said, and the rules weren’t enforced as rigidly as they were in the ECHL. Of course, Margenau meant playing rules. We quickly learned they actually applied to an alleged salary cap of $275,000. He also managed to downplay the fact that the nearest rival then was in upstate New York. The rest of the 11-member circuit could be found in Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.
Thus were born the Richmond RiverDogs, who began by finishing 17 games over .500 and winning their division by five points only to be kicked out of the playoffs — three games to one — by fourth-place Elmira. So, naturally, they fired coach Rod Langway. Say what?
In his first job as head coach after 15 years in the NHL, the Hall of Fame defenseman didn’t seem all that shocked or, for that matter, upset. “I had a gut feeling it wouldn’t work out. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it,” said Langway, who had been out of hockey for three years working for the family business, Richmond Heat Treating. “We did OK. I did my job until the playoffs [when] goaltending was the difference.”
RiverDogs general manager Jeff Croop, who would be fired by new ownership eight months later, tap danced around reasons for getting rid of Langway, now 63 and employed by the Washington Capitals in a PR capacity. Croop, owner of Richmond-based Ignite Business Solutions, still won’t explain except to repeat “I [was] as much at fault as Roddy was. I’m not going to burn the guy.”
Ask someone close to the team, and he’ll tell you the easy-going, nice-guy Langway wasn’t demanding enough of the players. Some wanted more and went to management to complain. There was a lot to complain about over the next two years as the RiverDogs had ongoing ownership and management issues after Croop left. They weren’t very good on the ice with Donnie Martin, who replaced Langway behind the bench, or Robbie Nichols and Kris Waltze who coached in season three.
By then the expansion Danbury (Conn.) Trashers had trashed the salary cap by more than $500,000, leading to a runaway first-place finish, the stealing of 100-point Richmond forward David Hymovitz and the eventual imprisonment of owner James Galante for racketeering, extortion, witness tampering and (believe it or not) circumventing the salary cap.
The RiverDogs’ original owners, including Margenau, regained control of the team prior to the last season when rumors they were moving the franchise to a new arena outside of Chicago proved true. The upbeat, combative Nichols was shifted from here to there to serve as an advance man. Local fans weren’t happy. That’s when Harvie showed up for a home game and was serenaded with “WE WANT...” you.
There also was scuttlebutt, started by Margenau, that Harvie was interested in becoming an ownership partner. Not so, Harvie insisted. “They were so bad, the league wanted them out of here. The guy paying the bills wasn’t paying the bills.” So, what else was new?
On April 20, 2003, the city and Coliseum, in a joint announcement, said the RiverDogs were long gone. Kiss them goodbye. Margenau and partner Jay Acton missed a deadline and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone here they weren’t coming back. By then Harvie already had begun lease negotiations with the Coliseum for Renegades II in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled yapping to bring you an update on some of your former favorites. Vandermeer married a local girl and sold cars for a while before returning to his birth home in Red Deer, Alberta, to do something he once insisted he would never do: run the family mill. He’s 42. Goudie, who will turn 48 in November, also married a Richmonder and has been a firefighter with Hampton No. 7 for 11 years. He has a daughter, 14, and a 15-year-old son, Maddox, who is quite the hockey player, according to proud papa. “He’s more of a skill player,” Goudie said, “but he has some grit to him, too.” He is a Goudie, after all.
The popular, outgoing Croop, 56, lives in Glen Allen. In addition to running his graphic arts design and marketing business, the native New Yorker owns a Federal Prospects Hockey League expansion team, the Columbus (Ga.) River Dragons. His 27-year-old son, Chad, full beard and all, quickly became a fan favorite, Croop said. A 5-11, 185-pound forward, Chad had 21 goals, 20 assists and 89 PIM in 44 games for the FPHL’s most penalized team before a premature end to the season March 13 because of the shutdown. After being in the far-flung UHL, Croop is right at home in the Federal which has teams in the states of New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois plus Winston-Salem, N.C., as well as Columbus, Ga. (We now return to our regularly scheduled content.)
Now 74, living near Williamsburg, Harvie is retired and enjoying his six grandchildren. Life is good. OK, so tell us, if you could, would you relive your hockey history? “In a heartbeat,” he said. “In a heartbeat.”
Harvie took his profit from the first Renegades and went into the ice-rink business, building the still-operational Ice Zone in Chesterfield County then selling it for a tidy sum previously disclosed as near $3 million. That was followed by a series of rinks around the eastern part of the country that didn’t do quite as well. Undaunted, Harvie pressed on, coming full circle with Renegades II.
Why? It sure sounded like another example of a fool and his money, etc. “I didn’t want to see hockey die [in Richmond],” Harvie explained the other day. “I gave it birth in 1990. If it was going to die, I wanted it to be on my watch.” OK, Allan consider it done. Three years — and unmistakable lack of interest — later, the latest incarnation of Harvie U., joined the Robins, Wildcats, Rifles, Renegades I and RiverDogs as road kill.
“The economy just died. I should have shut it down the previous season,” he said, adding, “I took a bath, for sure.” Sounds like the perfect epitaph for hockey here, eh?
Until next time ...
Jerry Lindquist can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.