Winter Sports

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Cold As Ice

27 Dec, 2018

By: Michael Popke
Warm-Weather Destinations Also Offer Winter Sports Opportunities

As significant snowfall seemingly becomes less of a sure thing every year, many winter sports destinations — as well as some warm-weather states — are relying more on indoor ice to attract hockey players, figure skaters and curlers.

In fact, Team USA’s first-ever gold medal in men’s curling at the 2018 Winter Olympics jumpstarted interest in the sport in, of all places, Huntsville, Alabama.

“Curling has captured the attention of so many people here,” says Mark McCarter, convention sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that the Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex recently invested in curling equipment and hosts Sunday night lessons. Facility operators are eager to bring major curling events to the city.

That said, the snow business is booming in destinations where winter typically still means snow. Lots of snow. From the winter wonderland that is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the charming world-renowned village of Lake Placid, New York, which hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics and never really slowed down, plenty of destinations are ready to win your winter sports business.

Warm Weather, No Melting
How do cities in places like Huntsville, Alabama; Mansfield, Texas; and Loudoun County, Virginia, wind up with enviable ice facilities and programs that rival those in such upper Midwestern states as Wisconsin and Minnesota?

“We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation,” says Torye Hurst, director of sales, sports and services for Visit Loudoun in Leesburg, Virginia. “We also have a high average household income, and many people work in Washington, D.C. Some of them come here from places up north that are known for hockey, and they’re looking for places to play.”

In Loudoun County, that place is the Ashburn Ice House, which boasts two NHL-size ice sheets and hosts several hockey tournaments and figure skating events. In May, the county’s number of ice sheets will double when the ION International Training Facility opens. A 3,500-seat arena will anchor the facility, which is expected to become a training site for skaters.

“People in the ice world are becoming more and more familiar with us,” Hurst says.

Huntsville has a similar story to tell. As the home of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the city attracts many former northerners who bring with them a love of skating and playing hockey. The Wilcoxon Ice Complex’s two sheets welcome multiple hockey tournaments and figure skating competitions every year, and McCarter says a third ice sheet might be added within the next several years.

Until then, expect hockey’s hold on Huntsville to remain strong. The Von Braun Center is a multi-purpose arena that can house up to 7,000 spectators for the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Huntsville Havoc, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville offers the South’s only NCAA Division I hockey program, according to McCarter. “Our youth hockey programs were so successful, and it’s really been contagious,” he says. “Teams that come here for hockey tournaments in March can leave the ice and go outside in shirt sleeves.”

Head further south, and the weather can get even warmer. In Mansfield, Texas (part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area), the new StarCenter Mansfield opened in August 2018 with two ice sheets and completes the city’s evolution into a popular sports tourism site.

“This area is viewed as a youth sports destination, and the StarCenter was the final piece needed to complete the ensemble,” says Tim Roberts, marketing and promotions manager for the Mansfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Since the [NHL’s] Dallas Stars came to town from Minnesota in 1993, youth hockey has skyrocketed in North Texas. Yet if we get a quarter-inch of ice on the sidewalks down here, we cancel everything.”

The StarCenter’s first tournament, the Texas Shootout, attracted almost 100 teams, about a third of them from outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Roberts hopes to bring not only more high-profile hockey competition to the new facility but also curling, figure skating, sled hockey and even broomball events.

Another warm-weather destination that hosts many winter sports events is Placer Valley, California, where the Skatetown Ice Arena in Roseville offers two NHL-size ice sheets. “A lot of people want to be hosting ice events out here,” says Donna Dotti, director of sales for Placer Valley Tourism. “It’s unique to go west for something like curling.”

Indeed, the family-owned and operated Skatetown facility prompted the creation of several clubs in the community that help bring in major events, including the upcoming Capital Classic Youth Hockey Tournament sponsored by the Capital Thunder Youth Hockey Club, the Wine Country Curling Club’s Crush Bonspiel and the Capital City Figure Skating Club’s Gold Rush 2019.

Winter Wonderland
Of course, if you’re looking for snow to go with your winter sports, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is about as close as you’ll come to a sure bet. With more than 200 inches of the stuff falling every year in some of the 15 counties that occupy the northern part of the state, the UP is ideal for snowmobile racing, sled dog racing, ski jumping and ice climbing.

“We get the most snow — and the earliest snow — in the Great Lakes region,” says Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association.

Snowmobile season revs up every December 1 and runs through the end of March, with 3,000 miles of groomed trails at riders’ disposal. In February, Sault Ste. Marie will host the renowned International 500, considered the largest and longest single-day snowmobile race in the world — and it takes place on North America’s only one-mile oval ice track.

Another popular endurance race in February is the UP200, one of the country’s premier 12-dog, mid-distance sled dog races. It draws mushers from across North America and covers approximately 230 miles from Marquette to Grand Marais and back again. It also is a qualifier for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that takes place every March in Alaska.

“One of the most misunderstood things about the UP is that our temperatures are actually warmer than most of the rest of the Great Lakes region,” Nemacheck says, adding that winter daytime temperatures usually hover in the 20s and that Lake Superior seldom freezes. “Our large snow areas are warmer than lower Michigan because of that open water on the lake. We’re very fortunate in that we work hard at manipulating the snow we have but seldom have to go looking for snow.”

The rest of Michigan is a winter wonderland, too.

“I would challenge you to find a more diverse state when it comes to winter sports,” says Mike Price, executive director of the Greater Lansing Sports Authority and coordinator of the statewide Pure Michigan Sports tourism initiative. “One of the benefits of living in a four-season state is you can create any kind of opportunity you can imagine. We have snow softball and snow quidditch tournaments here. That’s part of our appeal — we can provide something fun and different.”

Of course, traditional winter sports are hot in Michigan, too. The Lansing area alone boasts a combined four ice sheets between Suburban Ice East Lansing and The Summit Sports and Ice Complex. They host several national and regional USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating events, including the 2017 USA Hockey Youth Tier-II 18U National Championship, which featured 36 teams from as far away as Alaska, California and Florida.

Elsewhere around the state, there’s the Michigan Pond Hockey Classic (a three-day, four-on-four tournament at Whitmore Lake with a festival-like atmosphere) and the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (home to the only luge track open to the general public, plus cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing). The facility also hosts competitions.
“Our state doesn’t close down because a little bit of snow falls,” Price laughs.

Winter Sports USA
Another state that comes alive in winter is Colorado, and Colorado Springs — officially nicknamed “Olympic City USA” in 2017 — is among its most active cities. Home to 23 national governing bodies (including USA Hockey, U.S. Figure Skating and the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation), Colorado Springs can’t always rely on the amount of snow and cold weather that other parts of the state receive, but it does offer multiple ice rinks. They include the Broadmoor World Arena, the World Arena Ice Hall and Sertich Ice Center.

All of those facilities (and more) team up to host games for the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association’s Presidents’ Day Hockey Tournament every February, which attracts about 100 teams. And the addition of one more rink could accommodate even more tournament action, according to Cheryl McCullough, director of sports and special events for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Last summer, Colorado College, in partnership with Colorado Springs’ City for Champions initiative, announced the building of the Edward J. Robson Arena. The 3,000-seat facility will house one sheet of ice and be part of an expanding downtown corridor that also will include the new 10,000-seat Weidner Field stadium and the new 60,000-square-foot United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum and Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of those facilities that can help us go after new business on a regional level,” McCullough says of Robson Arena.

Land of Miracles
Even though almost 40 years have passed since Lake Placid, New York, hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics, “a lot of that legacy is still alive today,” says Jim McKenna, chief executive officer and president of the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.

Indeed, the original venues from those Games — including what is now known as Herb Brooks Arena, where the U.S. men’s hockey team beat Russia in the “Miracle on Ice” game — still host competitions on a regular basis.

Perhaps the biggest news coming out of this small village right now is that Lake Placid will host the Winter World University Games in 2023 for the second time; the first time was in 1972. No state other than New York has hosted the 11-day competition, which is expected to bring 2,400 student-athletes together to compete in alpine, freestyle and cross-country skiing, biathlon, speed skating, curling, figure skating, ice hockey and other events.

“Our challenge is to make this event something that has the feeling of the Olympic Games and raises awareness in North America of the International University Sports Federation,” McKenna says, adding that planned infrastructure improvements include increasing broadband availability and enhancing athlete housing. “This will be our biggest event since the Olympics.”

Lake Placid also will host the 2019 International Children’s Games in January for young winter-sport athletes between the ages of 12 and 15. The village also will host the 2021 Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships.

“We’re still seeing economic value from the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, and the name ‘Lake Placid’ still holds a lot of power,” says McKenna, who sold Olympics souvenirs in the village during those Games. “It’s quite mind-boggling.” SDM

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