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It’s training only on Olympic Center ice

Figure skating and hockey practice taking place but games, tournaments and public events are on hold

Photo — Christie Sausa A solo figure skater trains on the ice of the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena in this photo taken at the Olympic Center in August.

LAKE PLACID — In February, Lake Placid celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, with, among other events, the Dream On! Show celebrating the achievements of the 1980 United States Olympic figure skating team hosted in the Herb Brooks Arena.

That was the last major event the Olympic Center would host. A few weeks later, the Olympic venues were closed in accordance with state directives due to the coronavirus pandemic. While schools and workplaces moved online and group activities of all kinds ceased, events including the 2020 ISU World Synchronized Figure Skating Championships, the ECAC Hockey Tournament, and the Miracle on Ice Fantasy Camp, along with Can-Am and CHE hockey summer programming, were canceled.

The facility was closed from mid-March until June, nearly two months longer than the usual May to June scheduled hiatus, and it wasn’t clear if skating could return safely, nor what that would even look like. Olympic Regional Development Authority Director of Sport Paul Wylie and Olympic Center General Manager Terry Buczkowski were charged with making decisions and plans for the upcoming season starting in the spring, based on recommendations from the State of New York.

“Everything we’re doing here is based on the information, guidance, and protocols that are being set by New York State for us,” said Buczkowski. “That’s at the forefront of every single thing we do and the planning that we did, as well as for future events and programming.”

What was allowed in the Olympic Center depended on whether a sport is low, medium, or high risk, which is based on factors like the degree of contact and ability to social distance in practicing the sport. As a high-risk activity, hockey was not possible in the Olympic Center this past summer.

Under the state guidelines, figure skating was lower risk so it could possibly take place if strict procedures were set and followed. Wylie, a 1992 Olympic silver medalist in men’s figure skating who came on as ORDA’s director of sport in Oct. 2019, was instrumental in the planning and implementation of the modified figure skating program. He noted that although it was less populated than in previous years, they were happy with the numbers in such a difficult year.

“We were able to keep the summer going and that was one of our goals. At the beginning, we said, ‘Let’s not cancel. We can do this.’ We just have to roll up our sleeves and figure it out because, for the athletes, this is their sense of freedom or this could be the difference between whether they make the national championships or a higher competition.

“We also had several adult skaters coming to skate and take lessons and it makes their year,” Wylie continued. “So I think that part of it is very gratifying, to have been able to find a solution that works.”

Before any blades could touch the ice, ORDA was responsible for submitting safety plans, which had to be approved by New York state.

“We had to make sure that everything was scripted out in the whole chronology of the skaters, coaches, and parents visits to ensure social distancing and sanitization, so we can prevent the spread,” Wylie said. “It’s arduous, but it’s worth it, it’s life or death.”

The figure skating season began in the 1932 Jack Shea Arena. Skaters were required to pre-schedule sessions and fill out a health form every time they came to the rink. Originally only 10 skaters were allowed per session, and coaches stood in appropriately spaced spots around the ends of the rink. Eventually 12 skaters were permitted at sessions, and a maximum of eight coaches were allowed to skate with students while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

Off the ice, skaters were assigned their own spots — spaced six feet apart — to put on their skates. In the rink, space on the boards was delineated for each skater. When the session was over, skaters had another seat in the rink to take their skates off, then exited through another door to keep a rotating flow of traffic and minimize interaction.

Masks were mandatory entering the building and in public areas of the rink, although not required on the ice, except for coaches.

Although skaters could train individually, group activities associated with the summer figure skating camp including Adult Skating Week, group lessons, ice shows and seminars were canceled.

For the first time in decades since their inception in the 1930s, both the Lake Placid Figure Skating Championships and the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships were also canceled.

Still, skaters from across the country were able to figure skate in the Olympic Center this summer, provided they were willing to abide by the guidelines set forth.

At the end of the summer, sessions were moved to the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena, with social distancing and sanitization procedures remaining the same. These procedures will continue as long as they are deemed appropriate and necessary by the state and ORDA, as Buczkowski explained.

“Most important is the safety and health of our employees, athletes, and certainly our guests. We do have guidelines that are set for us, and then we have our own morals and ethics that we build in with that, and we want to make certain that we’re doing the right thing for everyone and that we keep it within the guidelines that are set for us to keep everybody safe.”

So what about hockey? While it is clearly an activity that requires more contact with others than figure skating, hockey practice was approved to begin on Sept 21. Northwood School teams were the first to take advantage of the opportunity to get back on the ice.

The return to semi-normalcy with hockey is a bit more complicated. Games or tournaments are not yet allowed according to state guidelines, so the Can-Am and Canadian Hockey Enterprises tournaments that take place each fall and winter have been called off until competition is allowed. Locker rooms are currently closed, also due to social distancing. Local teams in addition to Northwood, including Lake Placid High School and squads from the Lake Placid Youth Hockey Association, will not compete until state guidelines allow for that to happen.

“They are all on hold for now until the ban is lifted; relating to outside tournaments, the state travel bans, and Canadian border closure has to be taken into consideration and written into the plans, and we have to stand by those (approved) plans,” Buczkowski said.

In the meantime, he said ORDA will be building more hockey practice programming into the Olympic Center schedule in addition to the several hours of freestyle skating happening now, as well as opening the 1932 Jack Shea arena again to allow for more ice time.

ORDA also plans on implementing “stick and puck” sessions for casual hockey practice time and public skating, both of which will require strict procedures as well to ensure safety. More information on those programs will be released soon. Non-hockey events are on hold as well until the gathering sizes and maximum occupancies increase as per state guidelines.

After a surprisingly busy summer in Lake Placid, ORDA is also preparing for a busy winter, especially at outdoor venues. The Olympic Oval will be opening in December, exact opening date weather dependent, and Buczkowski stated that season passes for Whiteface have been selling very well.

ORDA has also been using this time to improve the organization as a whole and go into the “new normal” during and post-COVID with a new approach.

“Honestly, even in the strangest of times that we’re in, we’re excited and it’s given us the opportunity to reprogram ourselves, evaluate where we’re at, and put some processes together to even be more successful as a venue,” said Buczkowski. “It’s given us the opportunity to work as a team in the betterment of ORDA and the betterment of sports in Lake Placid,”

For more information on the Lake Placid Olympic Venues including the Olympic Center, visit their new website at www.lakeplacidolympicsites.com.