Michael Ritchie is a man fired up about his job.
In his own words, "It has never really felt like work. I've just done what I love to do."
What he has done, for 27 years, is manage the Saranac Lake Civic Center. Not that his work didn't include a number of challenges, but Mike considers meeting and overcoming obstacles a source of fun - and he does believe in having fun.
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)
His experience with sports and sports management goes back to his childhood in Philadelphia. It continued after college with jobs with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Philadelphia Atoms.
He grew up as a "rink rat. I lived at the rink," skating almost as soon as he started walking, His first love was hockey, his second baseball, both of which he played throughout his youth, carrying this passion into adulthood. In 1970, he married Sally, of whom he says that in all the years since, she has never failed to be a "wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.
"She has also been a very good sport," he said when telling about her startled response to the beginning of his sports career in 1972. This is what happened.
Mike had taken a weekend to fly out west for an exploratory job interview. He liked the offer so much - it was to manage two health clubs in Ogden, Utah - that he immediately accepted and, on impulse, immediately contracted a place to live. A couple of days later, he flew home again and told his wife what he had done. "You didn't!" she replied in astonishment, but then got busy packing. The day before Christmas the two of them, along with their young son, set out for Utah.
It turned out to be a good choice. They remained quite happily in Ogden for the next nine years until, in 1983, becoming homesick, they opted to move back East. They chose Saranac Lake because they already knew the area. It was "just right" for them.
By this time, the couple had two young children: Steve, now living in Maine, married with children, and Carrie, now living in Lake Placid, also married with children. In 1984, Mike began taking his young son to play ice hockey at the civic center. He soon found that the center only had ice when it was cold enough outside to keep it frozen.
Along with the Pee Wee Hockey Association, many skating fans, his own family and a whole lot of support from this area's communities, a plan to install refrigeration was developed. This plan, along with suggested revisions, was accepted. "Community cooperation was the key, and the plan with many improvements succeeded," Mike said.
A key element of the proposal was that Mike be hired to manage the civic center and oversee the changes. By 1985, the refrigeration was installed and so was Mike. It was clearly the right decision because he has successfully managed the facility ever since.
The indoor skating season lasts from early October to mid-April. The regulation size rink serves figure skaters, figure skating clubs, schools, local hockey teams (including 14 Pee Wee hockey groups) and public skating. In the winter, a large outdoor, floodlit community rink is maintained next to the civic center. It costs nothing to use and is enjoyed by adults and children for general skating and occasionally a pick-up game of hockey.
"The key to the rink's success," Mike said, "has been making sure that everyone who leaves here does so with a smile on their face. If using this facility is not a fun experience, there are too many other options available for sports-minded folks to choose this one."
That means good maintenance is of paramount importance. He makes sure that the Center maintains a working rink, fresh paint, good lighting and clean facilities. It makes visiting the civic center a positive experience.
"I may be the manager, but I have had a lot of wonderful help, without which it wouldn't be possible," Mike said. "Prior to 2001 when the rink's refrigeration was upgraded to a cement-enclosed system, it was just wild! The ice was made by spraying water on a cold surface provided by glycol filled mats which had to be rolled up at the end of the season and laid down again in the fall.
"We used to crawl at least 50 miles on our hands and knees hooking these together, then flooding them, only to have some of the mats float up and create slopes in the ice.
"Mats frequently sprang leaks; games were interrupted while we raced to fix the mat and refreeze the patch."
In addition to his job, Mike, along with many other dedicated residents, is a volunteer coach. He coached hockey for several years, including the years his son started to play and again when his daughter and other girls wanted to start to form a girls' hockey team.
"Today we have a girls' high school team," Mike says with pride.
May through June he puts in many hours a week with Little League baseball.
"I do this out of love for the kids and the game," he said.
He particularly likes working with 9-year-olds and 10- year-olds because he finds them eager to learn. For Mike, sports are not only about the game but about gaining life skills. He lets the kids know exactly what he expects from them. "If they learn how to throw, catch, bat and field," Mike said, "they will have more fun."
It's the fun of overcoming obstacles, which he brings to everything he does. It explains why the center is still thriving and why he now sees the kids he once coached, sitting on the bleachers watching him coach their own kids.
"That feels good," he concludes.
This article is based on an interview with Michael Ritchie. Caperton Tissot can be reached at her website, www.SnowyOwlPress.com.