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Out of the Blue

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The 60-year-old is bringing back the Richmond Renegades after a 13-year hiatus as owner. Harvie's lean, balding head shines under the lights, while small children, most wearing gold-yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the new team logo, gather at his feet in front of a small stage in the back of a banquet room.

Within minutes, Harvie has the crowd roaring.

"If Jesus can do it with 12" disciples, he yelps, "we can do it with 150!"

In the wake of yet another scuttled Richmond hockey team — the owners of the RiverDogs abruptly moved their franchise to Chicago in late April — Harvie is masterfully tapping a reserve of die-hard hockey fans.

They boo loudly at the team's new coach, John Brophy, 72, who happens to be the former coach of their once-hated rivals, the Hampton Roads Admirals. If it seems an odd reception, it's not: "I want to hear boos," he tells them.

In the difficult world of minor-league hockey, the return of Harvie's Renegades seems awkwardly anticlimactic. Since Harvie sold the team in 1993, three sets of owners have attempted to turn Richmond into a hockey town and failed miserably.

At the new team's first fan night at the Blues Café May 9, the atmosphere is upbeat. Those in attendance remember the glory days when more than 8,000 fans routinely flocked to the Richmond Coliseum to see Harvie's 'Gades play the Admirals. Harvie, who owned the Renegades from 1990 to 1993, says attendance during his first run averaged 5,500 a game. It's steadily declined since. Last year, attendance for the RiverDogs hit rock bottom, averaging just over 1,800 a game, according to SMG, the management firm that operates the Coliseum.

The die-hards blame the previous ownership group, led by New York-based sports psychiatrist Dr. Eric Margenau. He let the team die on the vine, they say, failing to market the team aggressively.

"The last ownership group was horrible," says Jennifer Parks, a schoolteacher from Dinwiddie County. Paulette Wells and her son Gene echo a similar refrain. The last time they saw a "Pack the Freezer" billboard, they say, was years ago.

"The RiverDogs in this last year, they did no advertising," says Gene Wells, a longtime fan from Mechanicsville. "The ownership wasn't reaching out to the fans."

With Harvie, there will be no shortage of outreach. Shortly after signing a new lease with the Coliseum in late April, Harvie hired Tracy Hynes as director of community and public relations, and group sales. She was with the team in 1990, and she and Harvie spent their first weekend together calling more than 700 potential season ticket-holders.

Hynes says Harvie's enthusiasm is infectious. "It's like a puppy that's been neglected," she says. "He's just so excited."

So why did Harvie sell the first time? For the team, he says. It was the only way he could drum up enough money to build a skating rink on Midlothian Turnpike.

At the time, the team was making money with a growing fan base. But the Renegades desperately needed a place to practice. Harvie became convinced he needed to build a skating rink that would double as a practice facility and a place to promote hockey and ice skating with youth leagues and public skate nights.

Initially, no one would lend him the $1.5 million he needed. (He would use proceeds from the sale of the team, about $500,000, as collateral.) After getting turned down 312 times by lenders, he says, he finally asked his neighbor to look at his business plan during a weekend golf outing. The neighbor, Jim Atkinson, also happened to be president of F&M Bank in Richmond. (At the time, the bank's loan limit was $750,000, Harvie says, so he hadn't thought to pitch to F&M. He merely wanted Atkinson, now chief executive of Peoples Bank of Virginia, to look it over and offer advice.)

"On Monday," Harvie recalls, "he called me back and said, 'We'll do it.'"

Harvie built the rink off Midlothian Turnpike, a quarter of a mile from Chesterfield Towne Center. It was a hit. So much so that in 1994, one of the investment bankers who initially turned him down, Harry Feuerstein, along with a group of investors, bought the rink for $3 million. The group also bought the Renegades for $1.5 million.

In the next year, hockey reached its peak in Richmond. During a championship run in May 1995, the Renegades drew their biggest crowd ever, luring more than 11,000 fans to the Coliseum. It was the only year that Feuerstein, who quickly turned his attention to building a chain of ice-skating rinks, made a profit with the team. Over the next few years, the business went south. After losing more than $2 million over five seasons, Feuerstein's group sold the Renegades in 2000 to another ownership group led by William Stewart, a venture capitalist from Denver.

The Renegades folded in 2003 after the owners lost $1.8 million during a three-year stretch. The team's only local owner, Markel Corp. President Anthony Markel, bore the brunt of the losses, coughing up about $1 million to pay the bills during the team's last two seasons.

Later that year, Margenau started the RiverDogs franchise. At the time, many felt Margenau, a veteran in the hockey business with a reputation as a savvy operator with multiple minor-league franchises, would return the team to stability.

He didn't. Margenau sold his share to another owner, Glenn Morelli, in 2004 — on his watch, the team gained a reputation for bouncing checks — and repurchased the team a year later with partner, Jay Acton. Then Acton and Margenau disappeared.

Dolly Vogt, general manager of the Coliseum, says she called Margenau repeatedly this spring to find out if he was renewing his lease. He wouldn't answer. Then in April, Margenau and Acton moved the RiverDogs franchise to Chicago, rebranding the team as the Hounds. Margenau nor Acton returned calls from Style seeking comment.

Blake Cullen, the founder and former owner of the Admirals, says Margenau is a "solid operator" who was at a disadvantage in Richmond because he wasn't here. Minor-league franchises, he says, are an intimate business.

"I think it's very important for ownership to get out into the business community, the chamber of commerce, business after hours," says Cullen, who sold the Admirals in 1996. "I got to know everybody. And when you call them back for a couple of season tickets, it was hard to say no."

Harvie and Cullen forged a close friendship in the early 1990s, while the Admirals, now a member of the American Hockey League, and the Renegades developed a fierce rivalry that helped propel the East Coast Hockey League. Cullen remembers when Harvie approached him about six weeks after he launched the Admirals franchise in 1989. He was interested in buying a stake in the team. Cullen politely declined.

"I said that's not possible," Cullen recalls telling Harvie. "But I said Richmond would be a natural rival for us."

The rest is history. In 1990 Harvie, who'd recently sold the chain of real estate schools he founded, paid the $50,000 franchise fee and started the Renegades. With John Brophy coaching the Admirals, the teams were known for fierce battles that often ended in prolonged fisticuffs.

At one game, Tracy Hynes remembers, Brophy attempted to scale over the Plexiglas wall separating the fans from the ice to collar a man who'd tossed beer on him. Brophy, a former Long Island Duck who is widely believed to be the inspiration for Paul Newman's character in "Slap Shot," was the consummate minor-league hockey player. He logged 4,444 penalty minutes for fighting, a record that still stands.

He's mellowed a bit with age, however. He'll expect his new team to drop the gloves when need be, but discourages players from a play-with-your-fists mentality.

"You're no good at the end of the year if you've won 72 fights and lost 72 games," Brophy says.

As for the new Renegades, Harvie expects the team to be physical. He says the 'Gades new league, the Southern Professional Hockey League, has fewer restrictions when it comes to physical contact than the United Hockey League, where the RiverDogs played, or the ECHL.

It clearly has Harvie and his fans excited about the new-look Renegades. With this new league, the overhead — players' salaries, franchise costs and travel requirements — is much lower than that of the older version Renegades or the RiverDogs.

Expenses used to run at about $1.6 million to $1.7 million a year, Anthony Markel says. To break even, they needed at least 4,000 ticket-paying "fannies in the seats" per game. The closest they came was during the 2000-2001 season, when the 'Gades averaged an attendance of 3,400 over 36 home games.

Markel spoke with Harvie earlier this year about the new team. Markel declined an ownership stake, but wished Harvie well.

"I think with this new league," Markel says, "he may have a fighting chance."

Harvie is convinced. In the new league, he expects expenses to run about $1 million a year. He needs to average about 3,000 spectators a game to break even. "I've lived a life of risks," he says. "If hockey was to stay here, I'm the only one who could do it." S



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