Murry Gunty: “How do we keep making it better. How do you keep moving forward?”

In the 90-minute round trip between her home outside Baltimore where she was born and raised and Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Robyn Remick has time to think.

She weighs the responsibility of turning the Maryland Black Bears hockey team into central Maryland’s “hometown” team.

“The beauty of a long commute is that it allows you to really reflect on, ‘What did I do well today?’ I'm beyond the point in my career where I need accolades,” said Remick, 57, who lives in Reisterstown with her husband, Allan, and daughter Emily.

After a 35-year career in sales and marketing in which she lived all across the country working for the likes of Disney and ESPN, Remick was hired in October as president of the Tier II junior hockey team, becoming the first female president in the North American Hockey League’s 24-year history.

“She could have taken much bigger jobs,” said Murry Gunty, the Maryland Black Bears owner, who saw a kindred spirit in Remick — an innovator willing to consider any idea (within reason) and sell a vision to a hockey fan base that already exists in Maryland. “She is qualified to run a professional team.”

On game nights, Remick can be found at the front door of the arena, greeting the roughly 300 fans who attend each home contest.

“I welcome every single fan who comes in, and I tell them ‘Thank you for coming’ when they leave,” she said. “That is part of the Disney culture, which is, ‘Welcome, we are happy you here.’ You can't ever take that for granted and I never will.”

Remick often hands out her business card and answers late-night texts from the billet families who host hockey players at their homes. “The mission statement of ESPN is to take care of the fan,” she said.

Remick has been “passionate” communicating with and sharing her appreciation for those families, who are scattered across the area, said billet coordinator Amanda Hafler.

“It makes it a lot easier being a billet when you have that support,” said Hafler, who hosts Luke Mountain, a forward from Minnesota.

“She goes above and beyond when it comes to the players,” said head coach Clint Mylymok. “She’s highly available for all of us (and) very aware of what we’re trying to do here.”

These are the details Gunty marveled at when he first met Remick last year and invited her to a home game. She immediately began walking around the rink taking notes.

“Those are the best leaders,” Gunty said. “Whatever we accomplished today is old news. How do we keep making it better. How do you keep moving forward?”

Remick’s sharp eye for entrepreneurial opportunities was honed at ESPN, where she served in four different executive positions for 12 years before leaving in 2016.

“You could say, ‘You know what would be cool — if we did this?’ and two weeks later it would be on the air. That does not happen pretty much anywhere,” she said.

Working at the popular sports network came with its share of struggles, though. “It is a testosterone-filled environment that makes it twice as hard for a woman to be heard and to be accepted,” she said of ESPN. “It's not like you have to act like a guy, but you have to know your stuff.”

Since joining the Black Bears, Remick has faced similar challenges — like being mistaken for Gunty’s wife, something she brushed off as being “part of what happens when you are a female president of the company.”

These kinds of interactions seem to not bother her and have never hindered her “need to succeed” as she put it. Whether it was working three jobs to graduate with a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 1983 or selling MTV packages to pious Mississippians who called the channel a “force of evil,” she never took no for an answer. Remick sees herself as an example for the next generation of sports executives, regardless of their gender.

Gunty, who owns more than 20 companies, many of which have female executives, said, “I just go for the best person, whoever that is. I hope that there comes a time in our country when everybody looks at it like that.”

Remick says she has had to recalibrate her expectations somewhat. She had a staff of 30 or more at ESPN — now she oversees three people. Before a recent game, Remick and an intern ventured out into several inches of snow to post yard signs.

“It had to be done,” she said. “I can’t call in my people to do that.”

Though she may not have the same budget, Remick still has grand plans, like installing a center-ice scoreboard and hosting a military appreciation night to both keep fans coming back and represent the community that sits in the shadow of Fort Meade.

“We want the team to reflect this area and that's service to country, service to each other,” she said. That includes the Black Bears players. “We want every player who comes into this organization to leave here better than we got them. And that's more than on the ice. I want them to be better men.”

Murry Gunty’s Black Bear Sports Group keeps gobbling up hockey rinks

Crain’s Chicago Business
April 09, 2018

An East Coast investor that has been buying up skating rinks in the Chicago area has cut its fourth deal here, buying out the longtime owners of a facility in southwest suburban Crestwood.

Black Bear Sports Group said it has taken over the Southwest Ice Arena from the DiCristina family, which has owned the property since 1975. Chevy Chase, Md.-based Black Bear has been investing heavily in hockey rinks here, buying the Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge in 2016 and last year acquiring American Heartland Ice Arena in Lincolnwood and Center Ice of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.

With the rising popularity of youth hockey, skating rinks look like a growth sector. For the 2016-17 season, 31,574 Illinois players were registered with USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, up from about 24,000 before the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup.

But hockey rinks are expensive to operate, and several in the Chicago area have run into financial trouble the past several years. Black Bear’s predecessor, Blackstreet Capital Holdings, bought Seven Bridges out of foreclosure.

Black Bear often seeks out rinks that need additional investment, whether it involves overhauling refrigeration equipment or fixing up locker rooms. Owners of many privately held older rinks have either been unable or unwilling to spend the money needed to maintain the properties, creating an opportunity for an investor that can and will.

At Southwest, built in 1972, Black Bear plans to invest in new mechanical equipment and make some cosmetic improvements, ultimately spending $1 million over time, said founder and CEO Murry Gunty.

“This fits with our model of buying older facilities that need some money to bring them up to modern standards,” said Gunty, a former investment banker and private-equity executive who founded Black Bear in 2015.

He declined to say how much Black Bear paid for the arena at 5505 127th St., just west of the intersection of Interstate 294 and South Cicero Avenue. The property includes a full-sized hockey rink and a studio rink.

“Due to the age of (Southwest Ice Arena) I believe this was the best decision for the rink moving forward, knowing that major capital improvements will be addressed as they are needed,” rink owner Frank DiCristina wrote on the arena’s Facebook page. “Black Bear will embark on capital improvement projects which will extend the life of SIA for years to come.”

DiCristina will join Black Bear as a vice president in charge of the firm’s four Chicago-area rinks. DiCristina, who did not return a call, has worked in the rink business for more than three decades.

“One of the most attractive parts of the deal is we get Frank,” Gunty said.

Black Bear also aims to reach a long-term ice rental agreement with the St. Jude Knights, the youth hockey organization based at Southwest, he said.

Gunty’s entry into the rink business a few years ago was serendipitous. His private-equity firm, Blackstreet Capital, which specializes in buying and fixing distressed companies, was simply being opportunistic when it decided to pursue the opportunity to buy Seven Bridges out of foreclosure.

“We didn’t approach it as a plan to build a hockey business,” Gunty said. “We just thought we found a great deal.”

But Gunty, who played hockey as a boy and coaches his sons, decided that he could build something bigger. The firm owns nine rinks now, including five in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and Gunty said he aims to buy more.

But it has been a risky business, especially for groups that have built expensive new rinks in the past decade or so. Unable to cover their high debt costs, the Leafs Ice Center in West Dundee and International Ice Centre in Romeoville both wound up in foreclosure. The Romeoville property, which has three sheets of ice, was sold in 2011 for $3.7 million after being hit with an $18 million foreclosure suit.

“A brand-new facility is not able to charge any more than a dumpy old facility,” Gunty said. “The rink business is much like the luxury hotel business—you don’t want to be the first owner. You want to be the second or third owner.”