Olympic Center gets ‘heart’ transplant
But administrators say building will retain the soul of the ‘80 Olympics
LAKE PLACID — Standing in the basement of the Lake Placid Olympic Center, the building’s General Manager Terry Buczkowski gestured around at the labyrinthine network of tubes comprising the refrigeration system that has kept this facility’s historic skating and hockey rinks cool since the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.
“This is the heartbeat,” he said. “This is the blood of what we do.”
This “heart” is getting a transplant, as the state Olympic Regional Development Authority overhauls its winter sports venues in preparation to host the Winter World University Games in January 2023.
Buczkowski said the refrigeration plant’s technicians have done a great job maintaining and updating the system to keep it running over the years, but many of the components are “well past their lifespan.” Over the next two weeks the cavernous room will be cleared out, and it all will be replaced with modern technology, with construction there scheduled to end by 2022.
It would usually be too loud to talk in this refrigeration room as the large, vein-like pipes pump glycol throughout the complex — to the Speedskating Oval, the 1932 Rink (aka Jack Shea Arena), the 1980 Rink (Herb Brooks Arena) and the USA rink. But the plant went offline on March 1 in preparation for the work now underway, and the only sound echoing through the halls Thursday was of jackhammers and saws buzzing away.
Buczkowski said construction crews are mostly in the demolition phase now.
“We’re really excited,” he said. “Lots of planning. Lots of juggling. We’re most excited that we’re keeping the doors open.”
Though renovations to the refrigeration system, 1980 Rink and 1932 Rink are putting them all out of commission for the time being, the NHL-size USA Rink will be operational in the interim.
Buczkowski said next week ORDA is bringing in a temporary refrigeration system to pump right into the USA Rink and keep it frozen for its regular figure skating, hockey and public skating programming through the summer and until the new refrigeration system comes online. He hopes to have the USA rink frozen and ready by March 22.
“We’re excited that we’re still going to have ice even during construction,” Buczkowski said. “We’re staying open for business.”
Buczkowski is glad to be at the helm of this major upgrade project. He has degrees in mechanical and process engineering, and after a career in that field he worked for several hockey teams before getting hired by ORDA.
“I’m blending the two with everything that’s going on here,” he said.
In the 1980 Rink, where the legendary “Miracle on Ice” showdown between the USA and Soviet Union hockey teams took place, Buczkowski said the approximately 5,000 seats towering over the ice will all be replaced. ORDA has already replaced around 1,500 of them, he said. This is obvious looking at the faded red-pink seats of old next to the bright red new ones.
Buczkowski said ORDA is figuring out what to do with the 5,000 seats it will have on hand.
“You can’t just throw them out on eBay,” he said.
There is an ORDA disposition process he said they will go through before their sale, similar to the Whiteface gondolas sold in recent years. Last year the Cottage Cafe in Lake Placid used former gondolas it acquired for COVID-safe outdoor dining. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism also plans to put one in Mid’s Park for photo opportunities.
Buczkowski said other memorabilia removed or replaced in the construction will be placed in a more historic context.
There is a “parallel project” he said ORDA is undertaking to “tell the story of the Olympic Center venue” through new signage and display of Olympic artifacts.
“We want to keep the legacy and the historical significance,” Buczkowski said, standing on a goal crease in the 1932 Rink. He pointed upward. “I mean, the dome, this is symbolic of the ’32 Olympics.”
He said ORDA will replace the acoustic tiles in the ceiling to reduce echo, but otherwise will keep the look, structure and aesthetic of the rink.
“We’re not going to change the ambiance,” Buczkowski said. “It’s a balancing act of keeping the historic side of things and the significance going, and at the same time bringing things up to current standards.”
He said there are “many stories to be told” and believes the Olympic Center is well-placed to tell them.
For example, Buczkowski said, many people do not know that from the northeastern corner of the second floor of the 1980 Rink, on a clear day, you can see all of the 1980 Olympic venues from one spot. With the rink to his back and the speedskating oval beneath him, he pointed south to the towering ski jumps and to Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex with its bobsled-luge track and Nordic ski trails, and north to Whiteface Mountain with its downhill ski runs.
He speculated that the top of the ski jumps is the only other place where one can see all of them.
The second-floor mezzanine of the 1980 Rink will have many amenities added in this project: hospitality suits overlooking the rink, more concession areas and three zones of Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant seating with companion seats.
Below, at ice level, several upgrades have already been made.
ORDA replaced all the boards and glass around the rink in preparation for the World University Games. The 1980 Rink is set at Olympic regulation size — 100 feet wide by 200 feet long. These new boards are adaptable so it can be shrunk to NHL standards — 85 feet wide — for the University Games.
These boards were installed over the 2020 summer, so they have not gotten much use yet because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, black streaks left by pucks are scattered along the glass.
The glass is spring-loaded, so the panels have a little give when slammed into, another NHL regulation.
The 1932 Rink will be used for speedskating in the University Games, but ORDA will also install adaptable walls there in case it ever needs to be shrunk in the future.
Buczkowski said the spark for many of these upgrades is the University Games, but that ORDA is taking the opportunity to also plan for the future.
The locker rooms used by speedskaters in 1980 have since been turned into storage rooms. Buczkowski said ORDA will reconvert them back into locker rooms, and skaters will take the same walk to the oval they took in 1980.
The oval itself will be resurfaced, and Buczkowski said the refrigeration tubes will be visible to those walking or driving by when the current pavement is torn out. He anticipates construction on the oval to start up in about a month.
Long-track speedskating standards have changed since the 1980 Olympics and up until this point, Buczkowski said Lake Placid’s oval has been “grandfathered in.” This new oval will remove 7 feet of ice from the outside curve of the two big turns on either end and add those 7 feet to the inside curve.
“The radius becomes much more sharp,” Buczkowski said.
With that extra footage, he said, they will have room to create a plaza for athletes and spectators on the north end of the oval.
The timekeeping and maintenance building between the ice and the road will also be replaced.
The overhang of the “link building” near the oval, from which the box office faces out, has been will be sealed in to create a new, larger space for the ORDA Store. The Lake Placid Olympic Museum on the same level will be expanded, too.
The oval replacement is in the conceptual development phase and not under construction yet. ORDA spokesperson Elise said these designs still need to go finish the approval process before they can be implemented, so the price for this project is not yet finalized. Some North Country construction firms have spoken out against ORDA’s plans to require union labor for this project.
The “link building,” which connects the two rinks and the oval, is also not ready for construction. ORDA previously proposed for the tunnel leading to the oval in the building to become an underground “spectator tunnel,” but Buczkowski said this plan is “off the table.” It will be for athletes only.
Initially ORDA had also planned to build a parking garage, but Ruocco said there are no plans for that currently.
During construction, the museum and the ORDA Store will remain open in a temporary space on the second level of the Conference Center during construction.
A restaurant will also be opened in the link building.
There will be numerous architectural improvements, like adding staircases and sidewalks for easier walking from venue to venue.
Locker rooms will be rearranged to exit directly onto the ice.
Figure skating locker rooms in the 1932 Rink will lead onto the ice instead of through the Zamboni tunnel. Doors leading to hockey locker rooms in the 1932 hallway outside the rink will be covered over, and the back wall of the locker rooms will be torn out so athletes can exit directly onto the rink.
Around the corner from these locker rooms, an expanded concessions area will be built, right where several vending machines have sat, serving a wider array of food and drinks.
Bathrooms and showers of several locker rooms will also be renovated.
This whole taxpayer-funded renovation to the Olympic Center was estimated to cost around $100 million when it was proposed in 2019 but the actual cost is not yet known, according to ORDA officials.
The 1980 and 1932 Rink renovations are estimated to cost around $22.8 million. The refrigeration system replacement is expected to cost another $11.7 million, for a total of $34.5 million currently slotted to be spent.
The latest annual round of funding was proposed in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2021-22 Executive Budget in January, which included $92.5 million for ORDA winter sports facility upgrades, including the Olympic Center. The Legislature has not signed off on that yet but in past years has approved Cuomo’s ORDA funding proposals.
This is the latest in a string of updates to ORDA winter sports venues in recent years. The Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg has added a new lodge, biathlon shooting range, Nordic ski race stadium, snowmaking, ski trails, bobsled practice house and a mountain coaster ride for tourists. The ski jumps have gotten on-slope refrigeration, a gondola and a zipline ride, and their landing hills are being regraded. Whiteface Mountain Ski Center overhauled its Base Lodge, replaced its Midstation lodge and is replacing its gondola. New York’s governor and Legislature have so far invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these upgrades in advance of the World University Games.