Mark Richards stood along the ice at James Brown Arena last Friday and watched an odd scene play out. The Augusta RiverHawks had just earned their first-ever win with a dramatic overtime goal that prompted a standing ovation, and Richards, the team's newly hired general manager, was the first to congratulate coach Brad Ralph off the ice.
But what was easily the biggest celebration in the short history of the first-year team was seen in front of only 1,020 fans.
It's Richards' job to change that.
"The challenge excites me," he said. "What a great facility. It was a great market at one time. I know we have a lot of hurdles to overcome, but I envision, after seeing a couple of games here, having some good crowds and really getting people back into it and making it an exciting place and a hard place for visiting teams to play."
Richards' vision begins tonight when the RiverHawks play host to Knoxville. The team is advertising the game as the first "Pucks, Bucks and Brews Night" of the season and will offer $1 beer and in-game entertainment.
It's not a ground-breaking promotion, but Richards, who officially started the job Monday morning, said it's a start in what will become a long process of trying to do what his predecessor could not: lift the expansion team out of last place in attendance in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Not quite two years removed from a nasty break that saw the Augusta Lynx leave town two months into the 2008-09 season, hockey's return came two weeks ago in front of 2,542 fans, followed by 1,622 the following night.
Team owner Bob Kerzner refused to accept the small turnout and responded by firing general manager Gilles Richard the following week. In two games last weekend without a general manager officially on staff, the team managed only a little more than 1,000 fans each night.
Richards admitted this first week on the job has been an eye-opening experience as he tries to lift Augusta's perspective of its new hockey team beyond the anger or apathy the team has been met with so far.
"I'll try to get it built up to where everybody feels it can be," he said. "We understand that's going to be a process of winning the faith back from some of the older fans and corporate sponsors, but we're committed to doing that."
The RiverHawks, who have played four home games entering tonight, have averaged 1,558 fans per home game, almost 1,000 fans behind seventh-place Pensacola.
Richards was head coach and GM for Kerzner-owned teams in Florence, S.C., and Winston-Salem, N.C., and Kerzner plucked him out of the newly formed Federal Hockey League in New England two weeks ago.
"We have good communication, and we share a lot of the same ideas and philosophies," Richards said. "He's an enthusiastic guy, and he wants it to work here... I knew already what he expects and what he wants."
Before the season, Kerzner said he wanted to lead the league in attendance and expected to draw at least 3,000 per game. Averaging roughly half the expected amount, the team is almost 2,000 fans per game behind league-leader Knoxville.
Richards spent last weekend going over those raw numbers, watching the team on the ice and staring at the empty seats around James Brown Arena. He went into action this week but said results won't come immediately. A revised game plan to raise Augusta's interest level in the team hasn't fully been developed.
"That's going to have to come once I get familiar with what we've tried to do and what we haven't done," Richards said.
"Really, it's getting bodies in and letting them see the product. I think the product kind of sells itself. It's good, competitive hockey."