LAKE PLACID - On Dec. 22, 2011, former Olympic speedskater Patrick Kelly and two friends, Octavian Moga of Montreal and Bud Eichorn of Somers, were escorted off the Sheffield Olympic Speed Skating Oval by village police.
They were skating during a scheduled session that had been canceled earlier in the day by Olympic Center Manager Denny Allen due to warm weather. Kelly, who represented his native Canada in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, said they did not know the session was canceled until they arrived. He also said the adjacent outdoor hockey rink was open, so he and Moga decided it would be fine to skate on the oval.
When Allen asked them to get off the ice, they refused, prompting a call to police.
Patrick Kelly, a two-time Olympic speedskater for Canada who now lives in Lake Placid, thinks the Sheffield Olympic Speed Skating Oval is seriously underused.
(Photo — Kate Brindle)
After speaking with police, the men got off the ice, and no further action was taken.
Allen was not available to be interviewed for this story, but questions were answered by Jon Lundin, spokesman for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs the Lake Placid area's Winter Olympic venues.
"Denny felt the rink was unsafe, and in the best interests of visitors, he decided to close it," Lundin said.
It was not the first time Kelly and ORDA clashed over the management of the oval. In 2010, the authority declined a proposal by Kelly and his company, Peak Edge Performance Inc., to lease and manage the facility. Kelly decided not to pursue his lease bid further, but he strongly believes ORDA has not managed the oval to its true potential.
"If ORDA would run the oval properly, there would be no need for us to do it," Kelly said.
While this December incident didn't amount to much on its own, it illustrates that debate remains over priorities for managing this particular venue - one of just three refrigerated, 400-meter outdoor ovals in the entire United States. This is the track where Eric Heiden won a record five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics and where Lake Placid's own Jack Shea won two in the 1932 Olympics.
Top-level speedskating competition is now mostly done at indoor facilities, but leaders of the sport like Mark Greenwald, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, say the trend is shifting back toward outdoor competition. The 2012 European Allround Speed Skating Championships were held outdoors in January in Budapest, Hungary. In Minnesota, the Guidant John Rose MN Oval in Roseville - a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb - hosted the American Cup I speedskating competition in December and will host the U.S. National Long Track Speed Skating Championships on Feb. 25 and 26.
Kelly does not like that the oval is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and he says skating sessions are frequently canceled, referring to the delay in its opening this year. The artificially refrigerated surface has the capacity to maintain ice as early as October but isn't opened until mid-December, unlike other outdoor ORDA venues maintained by refrigeration, such as the bobsled-luge-skeleton track at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
Kelly says if his company was in charge of the oval, it would be open seven days a week from November to March: rain, sleet, snow or shine. There would be a more consistent skating schedule with more ice time. He would bring in local clubs and facilities to use the oval, citing day trips from Saratoga and Montreal speedskating clubs. Finally, he would like to establish more professional skating events at the oval, as well as those for charity.
This approach is embraced at the Guidant John Rose MN Oval. This outdoor facility maintains ice from November to March and is open seven days a week. It only closes if the wind chill is consistently 25 degrees below zero or lower.
As proposed by Kelly, his company would pay ORDA $4,000 a month or 10 percent of the gross public gate, whichever is greater, and would cover all utilities. The contract would be for four years, allowing enough time to retain speedskating events that may require bids two or more years in advance.
Back in 2010, ORDA made Kelly a counter-offer to let him run the oval on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to see how things went. Kelly refused, saying letting him run it on the quietest days of the week wouldn't give a chance to his overall approach of opening the oval for more hours, more of the year.
When asked recently about Kelly's proposal, Lundin replied, "ORDA operates the oval, and we will continue to operate the oval. ... We have the staff, expertise, and this is what ORDA is about.
"We feel as if we are better equipped in handling it"
Lundin said one reason ORDA declined Kelly's offer is that he did not present "a full business plan that you would expect to see."
He said ORDA staff members will continue to use their own ideas, as they have in the past, but he said ORDA considers both solicited and unsolicited ideas from the public that "make operational sense."
Lundin said the oval is profitable for ORDA - revenue exceeds expenditures - although it is not the most lucrative of ORDA's venues. However, he said, revenue is down 4 percent from last year since the oval's opening this season, based on ticket sales at the gate. He pointed to mild winter weather and the weak state of the economy as factors affecting all ORDA's venues.
Asked if Kelly's management approach to the oval might be riskier than ORDA's financially, Lundin said, "There's not a lot of money in speedskating." But he added that the safety risk factor also weighs heavily in ORDA's decision to shorten the season on the oval.
"At nights when the weather in inclement - like on the night when Patrick and his friends were asked to leave the track - had we had it open, it would have posed a hazard to our visitor and guests," Lundin said.
Despite Lundin's dismissal of Kelly's proposal, ORDA board member Jerry Strack, owner of Central Garage across the street from the oval, said he would be willing to talk about it at the next board meeting. Strack also said he has been approached by people regarding the oval's hours, but he added, "Everyone is always quick to criticize someone else's management."
Other local views
In the 1990s, the oval was a training location for future U.S. Olympic speedskaters Apolo Anton Ohno, Shani Davis and Rusty Smith, but now it is almost entirely used for recreation. Kelly is not the only local person concerned about this. Local speedskating coach Mike Miller, a former U.S. Speedskating team member and alternate for the 1980 Winter Olympics here, said he, too, believes ORDA is underutilizing the oval.
"The oval is the forgotten stepchild," Miller said. "It is not seen as a big revenue maker, and the staff gets pulled to other venues."
Miller recalled that in the past, every serious speedskater who did not live in the Midwest used to come to Lake Placid to train on the oval. Back then there were no indoor rinks and the oval opened in November, giving skaters enough time to turn in their qualifying times (due in mid to late December) for the National Championships. The first trial for selecting athletes for the national and World Cup teams now takes place at the end of October. Miller said most skaters, including his own daughter, train at indoor facilities in Milwaukee and Salt Lake City, where they have ice available to them in July.
Miller said that if ORDA would make some improvements, the oval could host many regional training camps, compete with other facilities for development kids and perhaps even be selected to host an international competition - the last one to take place in Lake Placid was in 1989. He said the needed improvements would include putting in new compressors, repairing the electronic timing system and installing a matting system.
Like Kelly, Miller says he does not care who runs the oval; he just wants to see it become more "accessible."
That local people have strong opinions about the oval should come as no surprise in a village with speedskating embedded in its history. Jim Shea is the son of Jack Shea, who won those two gold medals in 1932; he also was a 1964 Winter Olympian in Nordic skiing, is the father of 2002 Olympic skeleton gold medalist Jim Shea Jr. and used to run a downtown business. He remembers how popular speedskating was in Lake Placid back when his father skated. He said it was quite a sight to see every store on Main Street close so everyone could head down to Mirror Lake to watch the races. Shea said speedskating was "king" and the oval, originally built for the 1932 Games, is home to the "roots of the community."
Interviewed recently, Shea voiced concern over ORDA's commitment to the oval. He said he believes that Patrick Kelly is the right person to run it because he has a passion for speedskating, and that passion is what the oval needs.
Shea recalled how it was not until Kelly started publicly expressing his disappointment in the management of the oval that ORDA started taking notice.
"They have done better since Kelly rattled their cage, but he shouldn't have to do that to make them do better," he said.
Shea does not want to see the oval get run down like it and many other venues did after the 1932 Winter Olympics.
"That is why everyone fought so hard to create ORDA after the 1980 Games," he said.
Brian Delaney, owner of High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid and a recreational speedskater, does not share Miller and Shea's concerns. Delaney, who also manages mountain biking trails at Whiteface and Mount Van Hoevenberg for ORDA, said it would be good to give Kelly a chance at managing the oval, but he does not think ORDA is doing a terrible job running it.
Delaney cited a recent Wednesday when ORDA opened up the oval at night for him and one of his winter ski groups. (The facility is normally closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.) He admitted that ORDA could have more racing and hours at the oval, but he is not sure how they should go about doing that. He believes ORDA's management skills are fine, but they could "market better."
More speedskating coming?
Concern for the future of the oval has reached beyond the local community all the way to Kearns, Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City. Greenwald, executive director of U.S. Speedskating since 2010, said he has received many emails regarding the rink and is bothered by some of what's going on in Lake Placid.
Greenwald spent many years training and competing here on his way to becoming a U.S. national champion in the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter distances and a two-time Olympian.
"I know Lake Placid very well, and the town and the facilities are great," he said. In an economy like this, he added, venues like Lake Placid's oval are not built unless they are needed for an Olympic Games; therefore, he says the oval is to be considered "a treasure."
He called it unfortunate that U.S. Speedskating has not had much communication from ORDA about possible events. He said he would encourage ORDA to maintain the oval and that his association will be in touch with the authority concerning the future U.S. Speedskating wants to have in Lake Placid.
"We want our presence back in Lake Placid, a bigger one than before," Greenwald said. "Under my tenure, we intend to do more in Lake Placid."
At present, Lundin said ORDA has not made any attempts to bid for national speedskating events, but he said the authority is open to them.
"We're in the event business," he said. "Certainly we would have dialogue with them and explore that possibility.
"Look what we just did with the Empire State Games."
Those advocating for more speedskating on the oval may have been given a glimmer of hope two weeks ago with the return of long-track speedskating to the Empire State Winter Games. The sport had been absent from the games for the past 25 years. After New York state abandoned the games in 2010, local government and civic groups picked them up and organized them the last two years.
Kelly, by the way, showed he was still in strong form. He captured gold in the 100 meter, 500 meter, and 1,000 meter races in the open men's division.
Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.