As the East Coast Hockey League’s 1994-95 season was about to begin, Richmond coach Roy Sommer was asked how he thought the Renegades would do. He just looked around his broom closet of an office at the Coliseum and chuckled.
After all, there were 13 rookies (one on injured reserve) and a handful of veterans nearing the end of their careers on the 18-man roster.
In addition, the team was operating under new ownership, headed by neophytes Harry Feuerstein and Craig Laughlin, a former NHL veteran. It’s safe to say this group of mostly ex-college players was not the favorite in the Riley Cup sweepstakes.
“You certainly don’t go into your first year [of ownership] thinking you’re going to win the championship,” said Feuerstein, now 58. “But we were cautiously optimistic because we felt like we were going to be faster than anybody else.”
While the majority of the team may have been rookies, most of them came from winning college programs and were all-stars in their own right. In fact, Sommer talked them into coming to Richmond after watching them play in the East-West College All-Star game in Erie, Pa.
“It was just myself and one other ECHL coach at the game,” said Sommer, 63. “They all went to American League camps [before being released] and I ended up getting nearly all of them. At the end, we had a pretty darn good team. They were a fun bunch to coach, boy.”
And so there they were, on May 1, 1995, exactly 25 years ago, celebrating on the Coliseum ice, after closing out the Greensboro Monarchs four games to one in the final series in front of a crowd of over 10,000.
It was the first and only championship in franchise history and capped an amazing season that started strong and ended even stronger.
Feuerstein (president and general partner) and the CCF Sports Group bought the Renegades from Dave Elmore and kept Sommer as the coach. Sommer had been in charge of the team for the previous two seasons with mediocre results.
“We really liked Roy as a coach,” said Feuerstein. “We wanted a team that was going to be fast, that was going to be feisty, stick up for each other, and that’s what happened. They were a mirror of their coach, because that’s who that coach was as a player.
“Roy was not the biggest guy, not the best scorer, not the fastest skater. But he was a tough, feisty little player.”
The Renegades went on a 13-0-3 tear to open the year, not losing a game in regulation until Thanksgiving night in Roanoke. With veteran Scott Gruhl and goaltender Grant Sjerven providing support, the team seemed almost unbeatable for a while.
Gruhl, who scored over 700 goals during his career, was a player-assistant and showed the young guys how it was done in the pros.
“My main concern was taking care of my job,” said Gruhl, 60, who certainly did that by leading the club in scoring (31 goals and 71 points). Doing smart things. Correct things. Hopefully, the players would follow that lead.”
Forward Jay Murphy (24 goals and 39 points) was one of the newcomers who paid close attention to Gruhl.
“He taught me a lot about being a professional,” said Murphy, 48, who works as a remodeling contractor. “He had been in the minors for years, so he knew how stuff worked. He let us know that we were going to be treated pretty good. There were a lot worse places you could be.
“Scottie was just so calm. No matter what was going on in a game. Even when he got into a fight, he was always so calm. Never really a yeller or a screamer. He was the assistant coach, but he was mostly just one of the guys.”
Sjerven constructed a record of 17-6-2 with a goals-against average of 3.01 during the regular season but wasn’t around for the playoffs.
“We had a great start,” said Gruhl, who is a service supervisor for a company that maintains apartments in six states. “A lot of it was because of youthful enthusiasm. That youthfulness, all year long, was constant. They kept me young, that’s for sure.”
After the fast start, the Renegades came back to earth because of injuries and call-ups but still won the North Division with a 41-20-7 record.
“None of us thought we were going on a tear [to start the season],” said Feuerstein. “But we definitely thought we were going to be better than what everybody else thought about us. They thought we were crazy for bringing in  rookies, many of them not very big.
“They all thought we were going to be in last place. Roy did a great job of letting the players know that, and I think it helped bring them together really quickly.”
While the youngsters gained confidence in each other, there were three significant additions to the team. One of them came at mid-season, and the other two joined the club near the end of the regular season:
- Trevor Senn was the enforcer the team needed to keep other clubs from taking physical advantage of the Renegades. The 5-9, 180-pound right winger, who could trade blows with the best of them, was brought aboard via a trade with South Carolina.
“When we got Trevor, everybody seemed to be 10 feet taller,” said Feuerstein.
Senn endeared himself to Renegade fans in his first game, which was in Norfolk against Hampton Roads, Richmond’s arch rival. Senn was flown in from South Carolina, specifically to face the Admirals, and fought tough guys Brian Goudie and Jason MacIntyre to draws or better.
“Roy knew about me [from other ECHL teams],” said Senn, 50. “I had fought Richmond tough guys John Craighead and Frank Bialowas. He knew what I could do.”
Senn was unable to play much in the regular season because of injuries but shined in the playoffs, accumulating 13 points in 16 games to go with 138 penalty minutes. He had the game-winning goal vs. Tallahassee in Game 3 of the semifinals and assisted on the game-winning goal in the clincher against Greensboro in the final.
“One of the big reasons we won the championship was picking up Trevor Senn,” said Murphy.
- Rod Langway, twice winner of the Norris Trophy given to the top defenseman in the National Hockey League, had retired from the Washington Capitals in 1993 but indicated he would be interested in getting into coaching.
“It started with Craig asking me if we would like having Rod help a little bit with the [defensemen] in terms of being a coach,” Feuerstein said. “Then [Langway] asked if he could play. Craig and I looked at each other and I said, ‘Seriously?’
“It was a great opportunity for the younger players to be around Rod. He loved the game and he wanted to be part of it.”
Langway, who was 37 at the time, not only was able to teach the younger guys the finer points of defense but helped solidify the back line going into the playoffs by getting into a few games. The 6-3 218-pounder also made his presence felt in the playoffs.
“Now you’ve got a guy that’s got tons of experience and composure,” said defenseman Darren Wetherill, 50 and the owner of a landscaping business. “Great team guy. He loved hanging around with the guys. Staying after practice and talking with the guys.
“He was great on the ice, too. I played with him some toward the end. He brought a little bit of confidence if things got a little crazy.”
- David Littman, who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1987, was managing a roller rink in Atlanta when the Renegades contacted him about joining the team. Littman had five years of pro experience between the pipes but had not faced any rubber that season.
“At the time, Craig and I were trying to figure out if we were strong enough [at goaltender] to make a run,” Feuerstein said. “Sjerven had gotten called up. We had Duane Derksen, a really good goalie, but you like to go into the playoffs with two good goaltenders.”
The Renegades flew Littman to Greensboro so he could get into a game on the last day he could be eligible for the playoffs.
Littman didn’t start the playoffs that strong, giving up four goals in the first period in Game 1 against Columbus and getting yanked. But he relieved Derksen in Game 2 and took over from there, posting a goals-against average of 2.33 and save percentage of .905.
“You don’t win a championship without a hot goalie,” said Murphy. “That’s for sure.”
Richmond swept through the playoffs, going 13-4, having home ice for every series even though it was only the fourth seed. The only close call came against Tallahassee in the semifinals. The Tiger Sharks took the Renegades to five games, with Littman blanking them 4-0 at the Coliseum to send Richmond to the final.
At the end, Sommer couldn’t believe everything that was going on around him and the team. One of the defensemen, Garett MacDonald, had gotten married, and Gruhl’s wife, Barbara, gave birth to their son, Logan, shortly before the playoffs started.
“People getting married,” marveled Sommer, now the associate coach for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks after toiling for 22 years as the organization’s Triple-A coach in various locations. “People having babies. What else can happen?”
How about the Renegades wrapping up the Riley Cup (now Kelly Cup) championship, and giving the fans reason to celebrate a title they had yearned for ever since the franchise came into existence under the ownership of Allan Harvie in 1990?
“We had such a great mix of guys,” said Murphy. “It all just worked out.”
RENEGADES’ RUN TO the RILEY CUP
First round (best of 5)
Richmond 3, Columbus 0: Thanks in large part to Blaine Moore’s four goals and three assists, the Renegades blew out the Chill 10-4 in Game 1 but trailed 8-6 with less than two minutes left in Game 2. Remarkably, Richmond scored twice with the net empty to tie it, the equalizer coming on a goal by Moore with 2.5 seconds left. Scott Gruhl’s rising bullet from the point with just under five minutes left in the second overtime finally ended it. The Chill offered little resistance in Game 3.
SECOND round (best of 5)
Richmond 3, Roanoke 1: The Express had turned into one of Richmond’s biggest rivals under the leadership of Frank Anzalone, who always seemed to have his team geared up to play the Renegades. The opening game was indicative of what the series might become, a tight defensive affair, with the Renegades prevailing 4-3. Jan Benda had a pair of goals, including an empty netter that clinched it. But it wasn’t that way at all. With one minor blip, Richmond put away the Express with relative ease, including a shutout by David Littman in Game 2 that required only 11 saves.
semifinals (best of 5)
Richmond 3, Tallahassee 2: The Tiger Sharks had not played that well during the regular season but got hot behind the goaltending of Mark Richards, one of the leading netminders in the league. The teams traded wins in Richmond and Tallahassee, setting up a decisive Game 5 back in Richmond. That’s where Littman (19 saves) outdueled Richards, and the Renegades got enough offense in a 4-0 victory, putting them in the Riley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
finals (best of 7)
Richmond 4, Greensboro 1: The Monarchs were another big rival and figured to give the Renegades fits. But Richmond went up 2-0 with a pair of home wins. Moore and Andrew Shier each had two goals in Game 1. The teams split in Greensboro, coming back to Richmond for Game 5. It was close all the way — Greensboro coach Jeff Brubaker vigorously disputed Richmond’s second goal — with the winning goal scored by Mike Taylor from Trevor Senn with just over five minutes left to make it 3-2. “I remember it clear as day,” said Senn. “The puck was dumped in and we were in the corner. Then the puck was behind the net, and I just looked up and threw it out to Mike, and he scored.” With 17 goals and 17 assists in 17 games, Moore was named playoff MVP.
RENEGADES’ 1994-95 PLAYOFF ROSTER
Jan Benda, Lou Body, Mike Burman, Duane Derksen, Scott Gruhl, Shane Henry, Rod Langway, David Littman, Garett MacDonald, Kurt Mallett, Blaine Moore, Jay Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Trevor Senn, Andrew Shier, Shawn Snesar, Mike Taylor, Darren Wetherill and Roy Sommer (coach)