SKI LINES – Just a little over 40 years apart, the 1980 Winter Olympics and the 2023 World University Games serve as bookends to a time when Lake Placid and the surrounding area proved it could host a major multi-sport international competition and then proved that it could do it all over again. This is no small achievement.
Mike Pratt was in the front row for both — first as a Forrest Gump-like figure in an iconic celebration at the start, then in a leading role at the other end of the era.
The start was modest. Pratt graduated from Lake Placid High School in 1979 and delayed college for a year so he could work at the 1980 Games. It wasn’t a stretch. His dad, a long-time coach and athletic director at Lake Placid High School, was very involved in the Olympic effort and was the sports director for the organizing committee.
Mike, a high school hockey player, was on the rink staff in a routine ice maintenance role that would have gone unnoticed in history if the U.S. Hockey team hadn’t won the gold medal. There, on Sunday, at the final event on the final day of the Games, on the ice right after the final buzzer, were the jubilant U.S. players waving flags and piling on top of one another in celebration. And a guy in a red baseball cap. He was a member of the clean-up crew, just going about his business. It was Pratt. The photo is a classic.
Pratt is now 62. The red hat is long gone. But he is still in the picture.
Since 2017, Pratt has been the President and CEO of the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority. As the chief executive of ORDA, he heads the largest state-sponsored sports-centered economic development program in the United States. Its proposed day-to-day operating budget for the next year is $14 million, and it is coming off a period where it oversaw more than $550 million in capital improvements that prepared the Adirondacks to host the University games — and a lot more events in the years to come.
Asked about his legacy, Pratt is characteristically low key.
“I’ve been fortunate to do what few people ever get a chance to do,” he said recently.
Although he has been a full time ORDA employee for 37 years now, he is quick to add, “It never gets old.”
With a degree in environmental planning (“before that became cool”) from SUNY Potsdam in 1984, Pratt spent a couple of years in Colorado learning the ski business from the bottom up. His first ORDA job in 1986 was as an assistant to Dave Hanson, the ex-hockey player and one of the legendary Hanson Brothers in the movie “Slap Shot,” who served as mountain manager at Gore for two years. Pratt didn’t need a coat and tie for the job. At various times, he was a snowmaker, drove a grooming machine, loaded lifts and got to know just about every piece of mechanical equipment at the ski area.
Jay Wescott took over from Hansen, and Pratt, by then assistant mountain manager, continued in that job. When Wescott left in 1996, Pratt became Gore’s mountain manager. It was his show for the next 20 years.
North Creek was no easy assignment. It is one of the oldest ski towns in the United States, but as skiing developed throughout the United States, the village never seemed to catch the wave. However, Pratt’s regional roots and unassuming leadership style helped make his tenure in North Creek successful. His wife, Sandy, established a real estate business in town, and their daughter Lexi — now Dr. Pratt and a public health researcher in Iowa — attended local schools.
On the hill, Pratt was an operations guy, known for attention to infrastructure and interest in environmental matters. The ski area received a major upgrade early in his time at the helm with the installation of a new gondola in 1999 and the development of Bear Mountain, which was a major change, growing the ski layout from four sides of two peaks to nine sides of four mountains. Snowmaking also expanded significantly during the period, and the public accommodation at the base received a major expansion.
THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE
When Ted Blazer stepped down as President of ORDA in late 2016, Mike was named as interim leader for a short time before taking over the top job in March of 2017. In the six years he has served, the World University Games have been held, competition facilities in all major winter sports have been upgraded to international standards, national team leadership and high performance athlete training in several winter sports have returned to Lake Placid and championship events are booked ahead for several years.
And that’s just Lake Placid.
At Belleayre in the Catskills, which was brought under ORDA in 2012, the ski area layout has been expanded and modified, a state-of-the-art gondola has been installed and the base facilities have been modernized.
At Gore, snowmaking has been expanded significantly, and 80% of the energy used now comes from a large solar installation located in Washington County. It is the largest facility in the United States devoted to a ski area.
So with the Games-to-Games era at an end, what comes next?
Events are solid with world-class winter sports facilities in place and the people who know how to run them already on board. Infrastructure is always a planning issue, but ORDA seems to be on top of that. The environment is always a concern, but there is a shared sense of stewardship and compromise in the region. Making the ORDA universe a year-round attraction is a clear objective.
ORDA brings with it a lot of promise. But there is the practical side too, Pratt acknowledges.
One thing that may be in the imagination, but is not on the table — for now at least — is a third Winter Olympic Games. Lake Placid, almost all agree, is too small to host the Games by itself While the idea of a regional games — Lake Placid/Montreal, or the I-87 Corridor from New York City to Lake Placid — is sometimes brought up, there is no active consideration of that now. Other multi-sport, international games like the Youth Olympics or the Masters Games for older competitors could be a possibility, but are not in the discussion stages yet.
There is some talk of holding the Winter Games on a rotating schedule at established sites around the world. That would alleviate some of the major cost issues facing future hosts. But even if endorsed, Salt Lake City, the current selection to host the next games to be held in the U.S., would be the first up to the plate in an international field of at least seven sites.
In looking ahead, Pratt has the rare perspective of starting out at the bottom and spending time at every level on the ladder to the top. A lot has been accomplished. There is certainly more work to be done. A major focus will be to re-start the development at the Gore Ski Bowl in North Creek. A new lodge and upgrades for four-season site usage were announced a year ago, but wastewater treatment issues stopped activity and what was supposed to be in place this winter now seems at least a couple of years away.
In all likelihood, ORDA will be around indefinitely as the lead agency in the sports and recreation-based economic development of the Adirondacks. When it comes time to leave, Pratt understands legacy and the need to provide benefits to the North Country for years to come.
Does he have an idea for who comes next?
“People don’t want another Mike Pratt ” he said last week. “They will just look for someone who has the skills and energy to do the job. Fortunately, the need for that hasn’t started yet.”
With more than 2 feet of new snow on the ground, it should be Hickory time. It is, if you are ready to earn your turns by hiking up the hill.
The venerable area outside Warrensburg continues to capture the imagination of a persistent group of enthusiasts who enjoy its rustic charms and challenging terrain. But efforts over the past couple of years to get the lifts spinning again continue to fall short, primarily due to the inability to fund appropriate liability insurance.
Hickory fans retain their optimism, but it appears that they will have to wait until at least another year for lift-serviced skiing on area trails.
BETSY PRATT DIES
One of the most intriguing characters in the development of skiing in our region has passed away.
Betsy Pratt, the former owner and long time guiding spirit of Mad River Glen in Vermont, died March 17. Pratt, a Vassar graduate, was one of the generation of prominent New Yorkers who regularly traveled to Vermont to ski in the 1940s and 50s. With her banker-husband, she bought the ski area in 1972.
Widowed in 1975, she continued ownership until 1995, when she sold it for far less than market price to mountain shareholders she believed would continue her commitment to stewardship of the ski area and its original purposes, along the way shunning many of the features of modern resorts. Mad River continues as the only ski area in the Eastern U.S. that does not allow snowboards.
Pratt was 95.
POND SKIMMING AT OAK MOUNTAIN
Pond skimming, the attempt to ski across a water filled pool, is both a fun spectacle and right of passage for many at ski areas each spring.
You can give it a look — or even a try — this Saturday in front of the base lodge at Oak Mountain in Speculator. The pond skimming will be held from 1-2 p.m., and there is no charge to try. Entries are limited to 50 contestants, age 12 and older. Costumes are encouraged, and there will be trophies for best skim, best splash and best costume.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].