‘A lifetime of memories’
Events Director Jeff Potter retiring after 36 years at ORDA
LAKE PLACID — It was a Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Jeff Potter was oblivious to the chill of the Olympic Center ice as light blue-and-white medal ribbons hung out of his jacket pocket. He was in his best version of heaven at the time — standing in front of Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian and other members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
They were on the ice after the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp’s gold-medal game. In the same arena, now named for 1980 Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, where a team of 20 young Americans won a 4-3 “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union then a 4-2 game against Finland for the gold medal. Thirty-nine years later, as the Olympians and fantasy campers sat for the official camp photo, Potter glanced at the Lake Placid News editor, as if to say, “Don’t take my picture.” Then he moved along. He had things to do. He was co-director of the fantasy camp and events director for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
Now Potter is ready to retire. At the end of April, he will leave ORDA after being there for the past 36 years.
“When I first started, I envisioned maybe a five-year stint but quickly fell in love with the area and what was going on up here,” Potter said on Tuesday, April 6. “I loved the athletic side of things and the diversity of all the different sports. It really kind of shaped my career, and it really became a part of my life for 36 years.”
It’s events such as the fantasy camp, and the opportunity to meet Olympians from many sports, that helped keep Potter at ORDA since 1985. He still remembers meeting the 1980 hockey players for the first time during the 10th anniversary of the games. It was one of his fondest memories of a career in sports management.
“Obviously, the greatest sports moment in the 20th century (the Miracle on Ice) happened in Lake Placid and to be working for a company that was charged with carrying on the legacy of two Olympic Games was pretty special,” Potter said. “It really was an opportunity for me that provided a lifetime of memories. I got to know all the guys pretty well over 36 years. And certainly Lake Placid would not be the same without that moment back in 1980.”
Potter turned 58 years old on March 9. He grew up in Hudson Falls, graduating from high school there in 1981. Attending his freshman year at the University of Colorado, he transferred to SUNY Cortland and graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.
“I needed to do an internship, and at the time Ned Harkness was the CEO up here at ORDA that had started in 1982,” he said. “He had started the Civic Center down in Glens Falls where I grew up in the late 1970s, and I got to know him. … I called him up to see if there was an opportunity for an internship.”
After his internship in 1985, Potter was hired to work in the public relations department with communications director Don Krone. In the April 4, 1997 issue of the Lake Placid News, Krone answered questions about his own retirement and called Potter a “tireless” worker.
“I think my upbringing, my mom and dad had a good work ethic, and they instilled that in myself and my siblings,” Potter said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons I was able to secure a job back in 1985 after my internship. … That work ethic really helped me along the way throughout my career and allowed me opportunities that I think showed that I could get the job done.”
Over the years, Potter has worked in public relations, marketing and events and was the head of corporate development for 19 years before taking the events director position several years ago. He named many people who’ve inspired him over the years, including former events director Jim Goff in events, former CEO Ted Blazer, current CEO Mike Pratt, senior vice president Jeff Byrne, former corporate development director Chris Sullivan and Krone.
“Don was a guy that was a tireless worker as well,” Potter said. “He taught me a lot along the way.”
Potter also had high praise for Harkness.
“He was a very demanding CEO,” he said. “He wanted you to be prepared. He demanded excellence and expected more. I think he was the first one that shaped my career here.”
ORDA manages the 1932 and 1980 Olympic venues, including the Olympic Center arenas, Olympic Speedskating Oval, Olympic Jumping Complex and Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg as well as the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, Gore Mountain Ski Center in North Creek and Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in the Catskills.
Some of the biggest events at ORDA include national and international competitions for luge, bobsled and skeleton at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track, figure skating and speedskating events, aerials competitions, hockey tournaments such as the ECAC championships and the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, put a halt to major events for most of the past year. And that’s where the News began its exit interview with Potter.
LPN: What have you been doing over the past year?
Potter: A lot of planning, a lot of reshuffling. A lot more planning. A lot more reshuffling. We had two events this past winter.
One completed successfully without any incident, which was the North America’s Cup bobsled and skeleton. I’m pretty proud of that accomplishment. We tested approximately 181 people over a couple a day period from athletes, officials, coaches, volunteers and staff. And we were zero for 181 as far as positive tests, so we were able to hold that event successfully, which helps not only our U.S. athletes and their friends to the north in Canada but also some of the smaller nations to have athletes living in the United States. It’s important because it is a qualifier prior to the (2022 Olympic Winter) Games, and we were able to successfully host that.
The one that obviously didn’t come to completion was the NWHL (National Women’s Hockey League). We worked pretty hard to get them here and had hopes of making it to the championship and helping promote women’s hockey and having a national audience with the championships on the NBC Sports Network. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen and COVID kind of got into their little bubble and we had to cancel the rest of the season.
LPN: Was there something you could have done better to prevent that, or was it just one of those things?
Potter: I think it was just one of those things. It got into their teams, and it spread within their teams and unfortunately it was devastating. It just shows how fragile things are right now with this pandemic. I don’t think we could have done much differently from our end to make that come to completion.
LPN: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen at ORDA?
Potter: Obviously the capital investment from New York state in these facilities over the years. We’re going through a huge capital investment the last three or four years that is going to shape the next 30 to 40 years.
I think the other thing that has changed a lot is the way our national teams approach sport. When I first started, you had young athletes that, when they got to that 18- to 20-year-old age, had to make a determination as to, “Am I going to move forward, or am I going to go to college?” At the time, I don’t think that the financial end of things were there for elite athletes to make a living as an athlete and chase their dreams of gold medals. That certainly has changed over the years, and you’re seeing athletes staying in the sports longer, in these “amateur sports,” and are competing into their 30s and mid-30s. It leveled the playing field for our American athletes.
LPN: How have events changed over the past 36 years. You had concerts in 1985 when you began.
Potter: Some of my memories are those same concerts. We used to have probably eight to nine in a calendar year, mostly in the summer months as bands were touring through the area. … The business model has changed, and it’s just gotten very expensive to do concerts like that. …
There was a period in the 1990s where the bobsled track was decertified. We were able to build a new track in late 1999/2000 as we prepared for the Goodwill Games. That brought international sliding sports back. As athletes progress, the facilities have to keep up with the times. Specs and homologations change as the athletes change for the safety of the sport, so you’ve got to keep up with all the improvements and modifications. I think we’re going through that transformation right now, and hopefully that sets us up for the future.
LPN: How have you changed?
Potter: Every event is a learning experience, and you try to go through life. You make mistakes, and you try to correct them so you don’t repeat them. I think I’ve become more patient with the experience. In the event business, you have to always plan, adjust, make new plans and try to deal with things as they come at you in a very level-headed and logical way and make decisions that are sound in judgement. You try to keep a level head about things. As Ted Blazer always used to say, “Keep your powder dry.”
LPN: There aren’t too many jobs like this in the world. What did you like the most about it?
Potter: We are the premier legacy organization from an Olympic Games. There’s nothing like it in the world. And we continue to keep all these facilities going. We keep bringing young athletes in to help them prepare, to chase a dream, and hopefully they succeed. It’s been a great opportunity to be associated with all the different winter sports, to meet the athletes. A lot of the athletes that I’ve met 30 years ago have gone on to either to be a coach or executive director of their federations or have gotten into the officiating side of their sport or working for the international federation now.”
LPN: What are some of your biggest accomplishments at ORDA?
Potter: There’s been many. The one that I really have enjoyed is taking our corporate programs and then building the (Miracle on Ice) fantasy camp with the 1980 guys. Back in 2008, Rik Cassidy and I had the idea of trying to do a fantasy camp. Rik kind of helped me put it together, and we got it out for sale. … I think we had 14 people sign up, then the economy kind of tanked and it became a little bit more difficult to reach people and nobody had disposable income. So we canceled that. … We took the playbook and put it on the shelf.
The year of the 35th anniversary, Katie Million was working for us and she had a passion for the Olympics and the Olympic hockey team and decided to kind of dust that playbook off and give it another shot. And we were able to host that first one successfully in 2015.
The thing that happened out of that were the campers that came have created their own bond with the ’80 guys but also among themselves. So people from all over the country who never knew each other really bonded at the camp. They stay in touch. They travel to each other’s home states to play in hockey tournaments. And they’ve become really good friends themselves.
It’s been great to be a part of and to be able to share the joy of being around these athletes and just sharing stories and having a great time with the 1980 team.
LPN: What are the job’s biggest challenges?
Potter: Obviously working for state government, there’s a lot of rules and regulations that you have to follow. And in the event business, you’ve got to get things done. The gun goes off at a certain time. There’s no delaying that, so you’ve learned to kind of make things happen and figure out how to work through the system. You try to do the best that you can and prepare your facilities, prepare your staff and volunteers and make sure that you have a good, safe competition for the athletes as well as the visiting public.
Asked about the most cherished item Potter will pack from his office and take home, he said a photo of his father, John “Jack” Potter, when he was inducted into the Plattsburgh State Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.
A South Glens Falls native, Jack Potter was a three-sport athlete at Plattsburgh, playing soccer, basketball and baseball. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fall of 1954 and was supposed to report to their Class D farm team in Georgia the following March. But he got drafted by the Army instead and spent two years in Europe. Then he attended Plattsburgh State, class of 1961, where he met his future wife (Jeff’s mother), and spent a career in education, as a teacher and school administrator.
“He certainly was my inspiration growing up, and that picture’s been on the wall with me for a long time,” Potter said. “It just reminded me of working hard, being dedicated to a cause, keeping a level head and approaching things with a calm demeanor. … I’ve carried out many a box already. Collecting memorabilia over 36 years, it is more than one box and more than one trip.”
Potter, who lives in Wilmington, plans on staying in the Adirondacks after retirement, possibly working part time helping with the Winter World University Games in 2023. He is also helping raise money to install a Miracle on Ice monument in Lake Placid.
“It’s been a great opportunity, a great career, and I will look forward to the next chapter in life,” he said.