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Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: Fred Festa wants to give hockey in Richmond another chance

Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: Fred Festa wants to give hockey in Richmond another chance

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Once more the memory man plans small steps down the lane of long ago. Wish him well, but holding your breath isn’t recommended. No telling where this will go, although in many directions is likely. We’ll call Volume 46: A Fool and His Money … Not … I Think.

Alfred “Fred” Festa wants to give hockey another chance here. He’s already tried twice and, through no fault of his own, is 0-2. First, 10 years ago, he offered to “buy” the Richmond Coliseum, that old, rundown, since-abandoned white elephant of a building that doesn’t have the decency to collapse and turn to dust on its own, and give it a reason for being again. It’s been sitting there for more than three years waiting for demolition, an eyesore and constant reminder of good intentions gone mostly bad.

Starting in 1971, the year the $24 million example of “Your City Tax Dollars at Work” opened, six teams came and went, all victims of high expectations reduced to drowning in seas of red ink. Last to roll over and go skates up was Allan Harvie’s Renegades II in 2009 — and he will tell you he overstayed his welcome by at least one season.

Festa didn’t care about all that. “I was going to pay nothing outright … [but] I was willing to fix it up … the leaky roof … put in a new compression [ice-making] plant,” he said recently. In effect owning the facility meant he wouldn’t have to pay a lease fee. He could keep all concession money as well as the sale of corporate sponsorships.

“I had a study done by the Ripken Group out of Baltimore … on what it would take to get the Coliseum ready for another professional team. I presented that study [to the city], said I would be willing to put my money into that … Because I knew the Coliseum was losing money … I offered some kind of financial arrangement to buy it,” Festa recalled.

It sounded like the perfect solution to reviving the facility, now destined for the wrecking ball. The former chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Festa unquestionably had/has the wherewithall to pull it off. Sorry, Alfred. The city turned down his proposal. “They said, ‘No, we’re going to continue to run the facility and try to make it work.’” Strike one!

Based on the Ripken study, Festa said he was prepared to spend about $3.5 million to fix up the downtown facility. “They never gave me a number to buy it.”

Strike two came about a year ago. This time there was much fanfare, including a late January press conference in which Festa announced he would own an ECHL team that would play in the new 17,500 arena/coliseum/rink planned as part of the $1.88 billion Navy Hill development downtown. The league formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League had given its blessing to Festa, who previously owned an ECHL team in Greenville, S.C. Would you believe the Swamp Rabbits, named after a 1920s railroad line? Really!

The same day Festa was given the big welcome here, city council was about to tell Mayor Stoney to bag Navy Hill, which was the beginning of the end for the ambitious, privately funded project. Back to the drawing board for Festa — but not for long. Now, he plans to put an ECHL franchise in the proposed 17,000-seat building proposed as part of a major complex in Henrico County. We’re talking 2025 — at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Festa is building a rink in the $2-to-$3 million range in Powhatan, near the industrial park. It is expected to open in September and will be used primarily for bantam youth hockey. The program will be operated in partnership with Brad Robinson, who owns Skate Nation Plus in Short Pump and Richmond Ice Zone near Johnston-Willis Hospital in Chesterfield County. Resta also plans to use the new rink as a practice facility for his professional team — when and if.

From Rome, N.Y., Festa, 62, is retired — well, sort of. He most recently served as chairman and CEO of W. R. Grace and Company, a chemical conglomerate that he successfully brought through a 13-year asbestos-related bankruptcy, one of the longest in U.S. history. Last fall, it was announced Festa would serve private investment firm Clayton, Dubiler and Rice as an operating adviser.

It’s not as if he doesn’t have enough to keep him busy. Festa has homes in Annapolis, Md., and Midlothian. He spent 5½ seasons as absentee owner in Greenville, losing — we’re told — $7 million, which he won’t confirm or deny. He will tell you he put some large money into making the Greenville arena more fan friendly. By the time he decided to sell his Swamp Rabbits, “we were close to breaking even.” He left, Festa said, “because we were never there.”

All of which helps to explain why he decided to own a team near one of his two residences. Baltimore has had hockey on and off longer than Richmond and still uses the same old building, with a large concert stage at one end, that called the American Hockey League’s Baltimore Clippers home a half-century ago when the AHL Richmond Robins first took flight. Festa quickly learned management wasn’t interested in resurrecting hockey there because they were making too much money with comparatively low maintenance entertainment shows.

Any resemblance to the ECHL of your Richmond Renegades I (1990-2003) and the league now is … almost nonexistent. Teams have come and gone at a rapid rate. Opened in 1988 as a five-team circuit run by Virginia Lancers owner Henry Brabham out of his Vinton office, the league had as many as 31 franchises (2002-03). Currently there are 14 active teams, with almost as many taking the 2020-21 season off primarily for reasons pandemic related.

With headquarters in Princeton, N.J., the ECHL has a monthly salary cap of $13,300, which in the past meant nothing because few, if any, teams bothered to follow it. That was true of all minor leagues other than the AAA AHL. Now, with the ECHL as well as the AHL coming under the NHL players union, Festa insists teams are following the rules.

He figures he’ll need an average of about 4,500 paid to break even, “but you won’t make it just counting on ticket revenue alone.”

Let’s see: The Robins (1971-76) averaged either 5,107 (according to an “official” game-by-game count provided by the team) or 4,621 (according to “official” figures released by the league). The Rifles (1979-81) averaged fewer than 3,000. Born in 1990, died in 2003, Renegades I had a few good years on the ice and at the box office — and finished with average attendance of 5,559. The RiverDogs (2003-06) averaged 3,367 followed by Renegades II (2006-09) with 3,837.

The Wildcats (1976-77) lasted little more than three months and 38 games before folding — barely — before the Southern Hockey League called it quits. Attendance figures were virtually nonexistent. In the end, the players were sharing home gate receipts, what little there were.

Also, you should always look at any minor league numbers with major skepticism, regardless of sport, because padding figures is a given. How much is the only question.

Billy Sahnow’s last fight, easily his most valiant of all, ended Feb. 19. Since suffering a stroke in 2016, the former welterweight boxer had been ravaged by heart trouble, kidney malfunction and diabetes in addition to the onset of dementia. Bedridden, he kept swinging away until he could swing no more, dying at age 83.

Sahnow was one of the young, featured fighters during pro boxing’s last hurrah here during the 1960s and ’70s before being pretty much counted out in the late 1980s. By his own account, he compiled a record of 136-24 amateur and pro until his retirement at age 31. Sahnow was a lineman for VEPCO before working on the railroad as a conductor for 30 years.

His funeral at Bennett’s of Mechanicsville, a short distance from his home, attracted an estimated 200 for the service and countless more who came earlier to express condolences to his wife of 17 years, Sandy. Advised of his deteriorating condition, friends and admirers called to tell Billy how much he meant to them. A daughter from his first marriage — who hadn’t spoken to her father in 11 years — visited Billy. “She told him she loved him,” Sandy said. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to him.”

The service emphasized Sahnow’s love of God and church. For anyone who didn’t know him, that probably sounded a bit incongruous for someone who lived the rough-and-tumble life of prize fighting. Not so, Sandy said later. “Billy was a good Christian who didn’t smoke, drink or cuss. I wouldn’t have married him if he did.”

Finally … the fight game takes a heavy toll, win or lose. Did Sahnow, in a moment of reflection in recent years, wish he hadn’t been a fighter? “I asked him that very question,” Sandy said, “and he said, “No … boxing has been my life.”

From the cutting room floor … Frank Easterly’s 1967 reaction to being hit from behind by Richmond’s Winston Whitehead — the VMI wideout got up and punched the Spiders DB in the face — led to a question: why? You weren’t injured physically. “I was hurt emotionally,” Easterly said.

The St. Christopher’s product also was ejected. Now that really hurt. “Back then, I was like [UR All-Amercan Walker] Gillette … I wanted to be the leading receiver in the nation, play pro football, the whole deal … then to get thrown out in the first quarter. The incident was devastating to me … We lost, plus my friend Charlie Bishop was the captain and quarterback. I was his go-to receiver, and he lost his job. It was a double whammy.”

Chances are, Easterly, 74, was feeling a lot better on Thanksgiving when VMI beat VPI (now Virginia Tech) 12-10 behind QB Russ Quay. The Gobblers (now Hokies) edged the Keydets 70-13 a year earlier. “The ’67 season was magical. I have told many it was the pinnacle of my life,” emailed Easterly classmate Bruce Gregory. “The victory in Roanoke was the most special. I cried — and I never cry.”

Jeff Croop is always good for a laugh. The former general manager of the RiverDogs now owns a startup baseball team in Columbus, Ga., called — Are you ready for this? — the Chatt-a-Hoots. Think of all the merchandising possibilities, with a tough-looking blue owl-headed ball perched on a bat.

Your Hoots are members of the eight-team Sunbelt Baseball League, a wooden-bat, short-season circuit comprised of college players. This year’s schedule calls for 28 games between June 7 and July 28.

Check the other teams, all located within a short drive of Atlanta, and you’ll note a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to names: Crackers, Braves, Astros, Bucks, Patriots to go with Aviators and Wild Things. Chatt-a-Hoots was the choice in a name-the-team contest that included Cannons, Scramble Dogs, Cornbread, Comets and Cuckoos among the finalists. Croop liked Cuckoos, but “the city wouldn’t buy it.”

His first choice, Diamond Dragons, was unanimously panned by his staff. “I like the Hoots now,” he said. “At first I felt I just settled [for it] because I was burned out by all the entries.”

Croup, who lives in Richmond, also owns the Columbus, Ga., River Dragons of the Federal Prospects Hockey League which had a startup investment of $1.6 million a year ago. He says the baseball franchise, “to do it right,” costs $400,000. OK, so who is your silent partner, Jeff? “My ego,” Croup said.

Few athletes cross over from childhood into your chosen profession. In fact, I can remember only one — baseball’s Joe Altobelli, who died March 3 at 88.

It began in the early 1950s, in Reading, Pa., where the Cleveland Indians’ AA Eastern League farm team played at roofless Municipal Memorial Stadium. Signed by the Tribe in 1951 as an amateur free agent, Altobelli spent two seasons (1952-53) in Reading, where I spent a month or more every summer visiting my grandparents and missed few Indians games.

A slick-fielding left-handed first baseman and OK hitter, Altobelli had teammates who included Herb Score, a flame-throwing (old-time circa 50s and 60s description) left-hander whose promising big-league career was short-circuited by a line drive to the face by the Yankees’ Gil MacDougald.

The 1955 R-Indians won the regular season with Rocky Colavito and Roger Maris, who hit 19 home runs and would hit a few more for the Yankees six seasons later. Of course, my favorites were Tex Dargie, an outfielder whose real name was Dargiewicz, and second baseman Jim Cleverly.

Cut to 1971, Altobelli’s first season as manager of the International League’s Rochester Red Wings and my third (of seven) covering the Richmond Braves — which, in those days of long ago, we did home and away. On the road, in particular, you got to know rival skippers, talking with them in the dugout during batting practice. From the git go, Altobelli lived up to his reputation as one of the good guys. He actually seemed glad to see you.

And that carried over, believe it or not, to 1987 when I ran into him again while doing a series on all the minor league baseball teams in Virginia. The eight-stop trek took me to Woodbridge, home of the Carolina League (A) Prince William Yankees. I was sitting high in the stands, behind home plate, when I hear someone say, “Don’t I know you?” Then, “Richmond, right?”

Then working for the Yankees as special assignment scout and roving instructor (that’s what the man said), Altobelli was between MLB managerial gigs — Giants (1977-79) and Orioles (1983-85), where he won the World Series in his first season after replacing the irascible Earl Weaver. As I recall it, Altobelli said he hoped to get another crack at running a big league team. Be careful what you wish for, Joe. The Cubs obliged in 1991 — for one whole game (0-1) — between firing Don Zimmer and hiring Jim Essian.

Last words from Easterly, who moved to Los Angeles about nine years ago after he and his first wife divorced after 46 years of marriage and three daughters. “I told her, ‘You can have the East Coast, I’m going west,” where he’s co-manager of an animation studio “and some other crazy things.” Oh, and he remarried and has a 5-year-old daughter. He was 69 when she was born. Talk about never too late. “I have four great kids,” Easterly said. “One just happens to be a little bit younger.”

Until next time ...

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