Following the collapse of the Richmond Renegades — the team folded in April after losing $1.8 million in its last three years — a new club, the Richmond RiverDogs, promising old-fashioned, smash-mouth hockey is about to hit the ice this month. Once again, a hockey operator is taking a shot at Richmond, which, he says, bears a healthy market of puck lovers who simply haven’t been courted properly.
“Richmond is a very significant market,” says Eric A. Margenau, the new owner of the franchise. “The Richmond Renegades experienced some significant success, at least in terms of attendance. If you look at the numbers in 1995 and 1996, there were some years there when they had some very significant support and a very significant following.”
Indeed, Margenau, a sports-psychologist-turned-entrepreneur, has some significant experience. The Renegades are his sixth hockey club in 17 years. He’s bought and sold five different hockey franchises, all of them profitable, and owns three minor-league arena football teams. Margenau is also chairman and chief executive of Orlando Predators Entertainment, a publicly traded company that operates the Orlando Predators, a very profitable arena football team.
“Without being arrogant about it, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be successful in this industry,” he says. “We’ve been doing it for a long time, and we’ve had a lot of success doing it.”
He’ll need it. Richmond has become a graveyard for minor-league hockey teams. The Richmond Robins folded in 1976; the Richmond Wildcats lasted only a few months, from October 1976 to January 1977; and the Richmond Rifles died in 1981.
Margenau says the biggest difference between the RiverDogs and the defunct Renegades, which lasted 13 years, is the cost structure. The RiverDogs are in the United Hockey League, which is considerably less expensive than the East Coast Hockey League, where the Renegades played. Margenau says the annual operating costs for his RiverDogs will be about $400,000 less than that of the Renegades. Margenau wouldn’t disclose specifics, but the average East Coast Hockey League team costs about $2 million a year to operate; those in United Hockey League cost about $1.5 million.
He hopes to draw an average of 4,000 spectators a game, he says — “anything over that we’ll be doing well.” But here’s the hitch: In their last season, the Renegades drew somewhere between 2,800 and 2,900 a game.
The Renegades of the past year, however, weren’t exactly the best measuring stick. A lack of aggressive marketing and a dispirited, conservative team often made Richmond hockey something of a bore, say those close to the old Renegades.
David Dartsch, a veteran hockey player who got his start in Richmond, says some fans became disappointed in the lackluster play of the Renegades and lost interest. Dartsch, who works as community relations director for RiverDogs, says the new team will be tough and physical — there will be no lack of spirit. And the new club measures spirit in penalty minutes: the more the better.
“You give a guy a good, bone-crushing shot to the body and the fans pop out of their seats,” he says. Dartsch himself is known for penalties. The RiverDogs general manager, Jeff Croop, prides himself that his teams have never been less than second in the standings in penalty minutes. The ’Dogs even have a team dentist.
“We’re going to have a big, physical team,” Dartsch says. “I’m not looking to be the [World Wrestling Entertainment] of hockey. I’m talking about physical play without the ghouls.”
John Emmett, a longtime Renegades fixture who is now radio broadcaster and director of media relations for the RiverDogs, promises more fisticuffs than teams past.
“I can guaran-bloody-tee you that this team will not be last in penalties,” Emmett says. “If this team is last in penalties, then some of the teams ahead of us are going to have to be in prison.”
Some RiverDogs are renowned for toughness. Brad Both, at 6 foot 2 and 220 pounds, last year led the West Coast League with 36 major penalties (fights) while playing for the Fresno Falcons. (Most players average between five and 10 fights a year.) Another recruit, Jeremy Wray, led the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League last year with 277 penalty minutes while playing for the Humboldt Broncos in Canada. The Renegades averaged only 19 penalty minutes a game last season. Several players on the current roster have averaged between 140 and 200 penalty-box minutes a season for their entire careers.
The United Hockey League makes it a little easier to field hard-core, old-fashioned hockey, Margenau says. Unlike the East Coast Hockey League, United Hockey has no players union, which drives up costs. Workers compensation also is much less in the new league, he says, and annual franchise fees are between $30,000 and $40,000 less.
And unlike past owners, Margenau has a forged a strong relationship with Coliseum management. The RiverDogs will get a percentage of concessions and parking fees, for instance, or about 12.5 percent of the net profit. Past owners often complained of being locked out of all-important concession sales. The RiverDogs are also working with the Coliseum on corporate sponsorships; in the past they often competed for the same advertising dollars.
What’s more, the Coliseum is undergoing a $7.1 million renovation that will brighten up the aging facility and offer more amenities.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make it work,” says Larry Wilson, general manager of the Coliseum. The biggest difference with the new team, Wilson says, is the relationship he’s forged with Margenau and Croop. For example, Croop recently worked to move a game night so Wilson could bring in pop star John Mayer for a concert Nov. 23. “The relationship with this team is much different,” Wilson says.
This may be Richmond hockey’s best chance yet. With the lowered costs, and experience of Margenau, the RiverDogs have more realistic expectations. And despite a pockmarked track record, hockey has worked here before in terms of attendance. Under Harry Feuerstein, who sold the Renegades in 2000 for $1.2 million (he bought the team for $1.5 million in 1994), average attendance was about 6,000 a game, and on couple of occasions the Renegades drew 10,000 or more. Last year, the Renegades were fifth in the league in corporate sponsorships, says Emmett, despite being knee-deep in a recession.
Sprinkle in a little more blood sport — without going overboard, Margenau says — and hockey could get new life in Richmond. And if things do get out of hand, Margenau, a sports psychologist, can help the players with anger management.
“I’ll be available for any of the boys if they need to sit down and talk,” he says.S
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