Right about now, indoor ice facilities around the country normally would be bursting with activity — hockey tournaments, figure skating competitions, curling events, sled hockey games. But the past year has been far from normal, and sports tourism officials in such hockey meccas as Lake County, Illinois; Moorhead, Minnesota; Fargo, North Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota and other destinations are helping keep the local ice cold for when competition heats up again.
“Optimism is our best friend in the travel industry,” says Chris Wilson, sports sales manager for Missouri’s Greater St. Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re trying to move forward optimistically, knowing that with a [coronavirus] vaccine in place, sports tourism will be one of the first segments to bounce back. We’re already open for business and cautiously moving ahead with events planned for 2021.”
While Wilson admits some event planners are nervous about booking ice events too soon, there is a “pent-up demand” for hockey. It’s one of the region’s most popular winter sports, which explains why there are no fewer than 13 sheets of ice within a 30-mile radius of each other — almost evenly split between St. Charles County and St. Louis County.
The area hosted a handful of youth hockey tournaments during the final months of 2020, during which social distancing guidelines were followed, Wilson says. And as of early December, plans were still on for the Show-Me Winter Blast! in late January at the three-sheet Rec-Plex in St. Peters. That event includes ice hockey and figure skating competitions, and it’s expected to be the area’s largest ice event in months.
The locale’s newest ice facility is the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, which offers four ice sheets — including one outdoors. Wilson says broomball and sled hockey are emerging sports, and the Disabled Athletes Sports Association is headquartered in St. Peters. The Centene Center hosted the USA Sled Hockey Classic in November 2019.
Greater St. Charles is one of seven cold-weather (along with one warm-weather) destinations SDM contacted for this story. Representatives from many convention and visitors bureaus say they are focusing on indoor ice events, as the weather is becoming more unreliable when planning outdoor competitions.
“Weather patterns have really switched on us,” says Travis Geiser, sports and events sales manager for the Chester County Conference & Visitors Bureau in Pennsylvania. “When we expect snow, we don’t get it, and then the times we’re not expecting snow, we get a lot.”
To combat Mother Nature’s unpredictability, Geiser and his team are brainstorming outdoor competition ideas that aren’t so dependent on snow. One suggestion involves converting an oval auto-racing track into a temporary speedskating track.
Chester County also is home to several sheets of ice, including the Ice Line Quad Rinks. With four NHL-size surfaces that offer seating for 500 to 700 spectators, the facility is located in West Chester (about 35 miles outside of Philadelphia) and has hosted two USA Curling Arena National Championships.
The county also has generated new hockey business from event organizers who had to relocate tournaments from destinations where coronavirus restrictions wouldn’t allow for youth sports. “We see that as a great opportunity to work with new organizations and show them what we can offer,” Geiser says. “We’re working closer than ever with organizers, trying to make things happen safely and within local, state and national guidelines. We’re feeling positive about creating unique opportunities.”
‘There’s Not Another Place Like It’
Unique opportunities are what sports tourism officials at California’s Destination Irvine emphasize — especially when it comes to ice events in a warm-weather state.
In January 2019, the Grand Park Ice and FivePoint Arena opened as the final major component of the epic 194-acre Orange County Great Park Sports Complex. The $110 million, 280,000-square-foot rink complex houses three NHL-sized ice sheets that each boast seating for as many as 600 spectators, plus the FivePoint Arena’s Olympic-sized sheet and seating for up to 2,500. The facility is owned by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and also includes a sports bar, party rooms, classrooms and outdoor public spaces and amenities.
Irvine hosted the 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier I 14U National Championships in 2019 and was preparing to welcome the 2020 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 18U National Championships in April 2020 (which was expected to bring in more than 30,000 visitors over four days) until the virus iced those plans.
“There’s not another place like it,” Dave Lucey, director of sports sales for Destination Irvine, says about the ice complex. “Unfortunately, operations were suspended March 14, , so technically we had a little more than a year with the facility before this happened. In a couple of years, we’ll be booking many more national events.”
Prior to the shutdown, Lucey says the venue was hosting local, regional and national hockey, figure skating and curling events, and the Ducks used the arena as a secondary practice facility.
‘We Will Bounce Back’
Boise, Idaho, meanwhile, was able to squeeze in one final major hockey tournament before sports shut down in that state last spring. The American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division 2 West Regional Tournament took place in late February at Idaho IceWorld, a city-owned facility with two sheets that also hosts other large-scale hockey tournaments.
The 5,000-seat Idaho Central (formerly CenturyLink) Arena offers one ice sheet and is home to the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads, whose minor league season was canceled due to COVID-19. “[The pandemic] impacted our winter-related sports tourism on multiple levels, as we’ve had to adjust gathering sizes and juggle restrictions to keep even the smallest local competitions going,” says Brandon Fudge, sports sales manager for the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I’m confident that we will bounce back stronger than ever, though. Boise is a sports town, and there is growing momentum in our ski, hockey, skating and curling communities.”
Indeed, Boise offers a variety of competitive winter sports opportunities. Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area is located less than 20 miles from downtown Boise and has hosted high-profile ski and snowboard competitions, and Idaho IceWorld is home to the Boise Curling Club and the Boise Figure Skating Club.
‘Playing it Safe’
In Snohomish County, Washington, which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area, sports tourism officials haven’t welcomed an event — ice, snow or otherwise — since March 6, according to Tammy Dunn, executive director of the Snohomish County Sports Commission. (The first case of coronavirus in the United States was reported in the Seattle area in late January.)
“We’re trying to advocate for sports and figure out ways to adhere to protocols,” she says, adding that while some hockey tournaments are on hold until at least March, previously scheduled U.S. Figure Skating competitions were held virtually, with skaters videorecording their performances for judges. “The challenge is that we don’t know what the future holds. But the venues are playing it safe and will help get us out of this.”
When hockey and other ice sports return, Snohomish County will be able to accommodate events at three facilities. Angel of the Winds Arena (formerly known as the Everett Events Center) is a 10,000-seat venue in downtown Everett operated by the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians of Washington. It is home to the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips (named after a grizzly bear) — a perennially formidable team for most of its 17-year existence. The Seattle Junior Hockey Association and the Seattle Skating Club, meanwhile, call the Lynnwood Ice Center home, and Olympicview Arena in Mountlake Terrace hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Northwest Pacific Regional Singles Challenge in 2019 and 2016.
Hockey fever in the region, already running high, is expected to reach new levels when the Seattle Kraken, an NHL expansion team, takes the ice for its inaugural season in 2021.
Another destination known for its hockey opportunities is Lake County, Illinois, just north of Chicago.
“Hockey is the biggest winter sport that comes through here,” says Teresa Lewis, sports sales manager for Visit Lake County. “It’s our bread and butter.” She points to the CCM World Invite, which is billed as the “world’s largest ice hockey tournament all in one city” and takes place annually at rinks throughout the Chicagoland area — including several in Lake County. The 2020 edition of the tournament, which typically brings in more than 500 teams and 10,000 players, was cancelled in Chicago and then revamped and relocated to Detroit and Dallas for early 2021. But it will return to Chicago in November 2021, according to Lewis.
Barrington Ice Arena, Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills, Centennial Ice Arena in Highland Park, Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Buffalo Grove, and facilities at both Lake Forest College and Lake Forest Academy are among the tournament-ready venues in the county. Another facility with two NHL-size sheets of ice is planned for the Village of Lincolnshire in 2023, according to Lewis.
Lake County also is home to the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, which offers sled hockey tournaments; ice fishing competitions are held on the Chain O’Lakes, a 15-lake system in northeast Illinois; and curling and skiing opportunities are available, too.
Hockey also is a big deal in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Sioux Falls Stampede plays in the 12,000-seat Denny Sanford PREMIER Center and tops the United States Hockey League in attendance. The Scheels Ice Plex, meanwhile, offers ice hockey, sled hockey, curling and figure skating opportunities.
Krista Orsack, director of marketing for Experience Sioux Falls, says the city can host a variety of events during the winter months. “What sets us apart are the different variety of venues we have,” she says. “Our venues offer flexibility for all types of sports events, not just ice- or snow-related. Additionally, we are a big small town that has all of the amenities, dining, and shopping while also being safe.”
‘Rolling With the Flow’
Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Athletic Commission — which serves communities that border North Dakota and Minnesota — has faced a double challenge during the pandemic by needing to adhere to safety regulations in two states. North Dakota, for example, did not mandate the wearing of face masks, while Minnesota did.
“We’re getting good at just rolling with the flow,” Mork says, noting that some visitors play in one state and sleep in another. “We developed a ‘know before you go’ sheet that explains the regulations for each side of the border.”
Because there were more lax regulations on the North Dakota side, Mork says several hockey events were held in Fargo over the summer. Collectively, the border communities offer 17 ice rinks within a 15-minute drive of each other. That total climbed to 18 with the recent opening of a full-size outdoor rink in West Fargo, and local officials anticipate it will host competitions.
The region’s largest ice complex is the Cullen Hockey Center, which includes three sheets under one roof. Scheels Arena, with two sheets, is another major destination for high-profile ice events and boasts variable seating configurations.
Five youth hockey events were canceled in Minnesota in the wake of a mid-November youth sports shutdown, but when the games return, plans call for encouraging parents to not bring siblings to hockey games in an effort to reduce the number of spectators at indoor competitions.
“Obviously, our winter events are going to look a little different, but we’re trying to make them happen as much as possible,” Mork says. “We’ve become a good information resource to help organizers navigate these challenges, and we’re also focused on how we can help ensure that our attractions, our hotels and restaurants are still here when this is all over.” SDM