September 11, 2002

Paradise Lost as ECAC Tournament Moves to Albany

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I remember my first time like it was yesterday.

I still remember thinking that I had arrived in a utopia when the sign welcoming us to Lake Placid ended our seemingly endless journey. I felt like the proverbial child behind the counter at a candy store as I relished my first glance at the historic Olympic Arena. After covering what seemed like a Cinderella season for the men’s hockey team, I felt as though I arrived at a Magic Kingdom of sorts.

Strolling down the main strip of town was glorious. Lake Placid manages to gracefully mix modern chic with tradition in an environment that recalls days gone by. It’s the type of place where people stop on the street to smile and say hello to perfect strangers. Its beauty is striking; picturesque mountains outline the cool serene waters of the lake. It was as if somehow those with the most infinite zest for life and the most ardent appreciation for nature had come together in a room, imagined the perfect setting and realized their dreams in a small, quaint village in upstate New York.

For the past several years, Lake Placid played a gracious host to the ECAC’s men’s hockey tournament each March. I had the honor of covering two events in Lake Placid and they were unequivocally first-class operations. I’ve worked events at some of the biggest stages in sports from Shea Stadium to center court at the United States Tennis Open. Make no mistake about it, the Olympic Arena was as capable as counterparts many times its size.

Regrettably, the “wise ones” who run the ECAC under the so-called leadership of Phil Buttafuoco have decided this wasn’t good enough. After agreeing to a verbal 5-year extension in 2001, Buttafuoco and company have jump ship and taken the tournament to the city of concrete — Albany, New York.

The ECAC is a small, academically oriented conference among a landscape of gigantic and often corrupt brethren. It will never become the profit-making machine that the Big 12 or ACC are, nor should it strive to be. In fact, it simply can’t be. Its member schools are a fraction of the size of most of the bigger conferences and its markets include such booming metropolises as Potsdam, New York.

In the words of the new voice of Cornell hockey Adam Wodon, “You disparage Lake Placid, you are committing hockey blasphemy.”

That’s the perfect reaction to the ECAC’s brainless decision: blasphemous. It’s not just the local press that’s disturbed either. The Boston Globe likened the Lake Placid-ECAC divorce to separating Santa Claus from the North Pole.

Lake Placid was the type of place where it seemed like the thousands of other fans in attendance were family. Whether you were satiating your gastronomical desires at one of the quaint cafes in town, exploring the many handicraft stores or just admiring the unencumbered natural surroundings, chances are you’d see either someone you knew in town or a perfect stranger would offer a nod of encouragement or a good-hearted quip depending on which team you were supporting. It was the type of place where local business owners displayed signs proffering their allegiance to one of the five schools. It was more than just a great hockey town. It was a place where you could enjoy a romantic candlelight dinner overlooking the Lake as the lights glimmered over it or could just as easily grab a few buddies for beer and burgers at one of the many fine pubs in town. It satisfied those seeking the thrill of a bobsled ride or those of us that preferred the almost surreal experience of a dog-pulled sled ride on frozen water.

Most of all, Lake Placid offered a chance to be together, to laugh, to enjoy — to appreciate human interaction. ECAC tournament hockey had the uncanny ability to unite perfect strangers and offer them what seemed to be a perfect weekend. The days when major league sports were able to do the same have long passed in the name of corporate sponsorships. It’s unfortunate that as we vow to be a nation of stronger communities, that one of the keepers of one of the last bastions of pure, unadulterated sport have chosen an opposite course for their product.

Archived article by Gary Schueller