Winter sports organizers can find ice sheets everywhere these days — from the frozen communities on the North Dakota-Minnesota border to the warm and sparkling Florida Gulf Coast. Depending on your preference, you can leave the rink and walk outside into a winter wonderland with a high likelihood of snow falling or head off to the beach and enjoy temperatures in the mid-70s.
“We don’t apologize for our winters,” says Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, which serves the North Dakota-Minnesota border region. “Even when it’s minus-10 degrees, we get outside and play. That is who we are, and it runs deep up here.”
“We are a very cool winter destination,” echoes Taylor Williamson, sports and convention sales manager for the Boise (Idaho) Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When you go outside, the air is cold and brisk and filled with a small-town winter vibe.”
But some groups might not be looking for frigid authenticity.
“This is an amazing getaway destination for families, especially in the winter season,” says Consuelo Sanchez, sports development and tourism manager for Florida’s Sports Coast, the official destination management office for Pasco County, Florida. “Hockey is growing a lot in Florida. The [National Hockey League’s] Tampa Bay Lightning has increased the competition level here. We were also home to the 2018 U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team’s training program, and they won the gold medal. Girls’ hockey has increased significantly here.”
Ice sports are just one component of the winter sports scene. The recently released participation study from Snowsports Industries America indicates that winter sports participation increased by 1.2 percent during the 2018-19 winter season to 24.6 million Americans ages 6 and older. The South Atlantic Region — which includes North Carolina, South Carolina and the Atlantic Coast of Florida — was among those with the greatest number of participants.
Snowboarding proved to be the most popular winter sport among survey respondents, followed closely by cross country skiing, skiing and snowshoeing. SDM’s conversations with sports tourism representatives also reveal that fat tire bike racing, sled hockey and ice fishing competitions are gaining traction, too.
In October, SIA announced the launch of “Generation Snow,” an initiative designed to increase the total number of new winter sports participants by 100,000 by 2028. In an effort to make that happen, SIA has partnered with the Share Winter Foundation, a national grantmaking organization working to improve youth health and fitness through winter sports.
That goal could become reality, especially if the following seven winter and ice sports destinations have anything to say about it. Let’s work our way from north to south via the Pacific Northwest.
Boise is home to the Idaho Steelheads of the mid-level ECHL professional hockey league, as well as to active hockey, curling and figure skating clubs.
In addition to the ice sheet at 5,000-seat CenturyLink Arena, where the Steelheads play, Boise offers two ice sheets at city-owned Idaho IceWorld, which will host the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s 2020 Men’s Division 2 West Regionals in late February. Local youth hockey clubs also host large-scale tournaments, and Taylor Williamson hopes to bring in more figure skating and curling events.
The ACHA regionals will coincide with the United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association’s Western Regional Championships at Bogus Basin Ski Area.
“It’s a funny name, but Bogus Basin is a great nonprofit mountain that’s all about inclusion and families and encouraging people to enjoy the facility,” Williamson says. “Bogus Basin has grown its presence and put itself on the map more, especially since it started adding snowmaking capabilities. Having that ability gives snow event owners peace of mind if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, and this USCSA event will open up the doors for Boise to host other similar events.”
Fargo, North Dakota/Moorhead, Minnesota
Between these two border cities, the Fargo-Moorhead region counts 17 ice rinks — all of which are active between September and April. The sheets are within a 15-minute drive of each other, and the largest 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.
The recent addition of a third ice sheet at the Cullen Hockey Center (named after Matt Cullen, who spent 21 seasons in the National Hockey League, including three with the Minnesota Wild), allows the region to bring in large events with more teams, according to Kali Mork.
The Fargo Youth Hockey Association sponsors an international Squirt tournament that takes place in the region over three weekends in February and brings in 228 teams, while the University of North Dakota is a frequent host of the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Midwest Regional at Scheels Arena.
Meanwhile, the Fargo-Moorhead Curling Club will host the 2020 USA Curling College Championship in Fargo in mid-March, marking the seventh national championship event the facility will have hosted in nine years, Mork says. The club also has hosted U.S. Olympic team trials, as well as youth and senior events.
Figure skating events contribute to winter sports tourism in Fargo-Moorhead, too, and Mork says she’d like to bring in more.
Twin Cities Gateway, Minnesota
Further east on the other side of Minnesota, in Blaine, the National Sports Center houses eight ice sheets in its Super Rink. The facility hosted the World Broomball Championships in 2006 and 2018 and is a frequent host of the USA Broomball National Championships.
“If I went to all 50 states, people in five of them would know about broomball,” jokes Al Stauffacher, sports marketing manager for the Twin Cities Gateway Visitors Bureau, which encompasses nine cities on the northern fringe of Minneapolis/St. Paul.
But the sport is no laughing matter to the region’s sports tourism economy. The Twin Cities Gateway Visitors Bureau was awarded a 2019 Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism award by Sports Destination Management for the 2018 World Broomball Championships, which resulted in a total of 4,748 room nights and an economic impact of more than $2.3 million.
Hockey competitions in the Twin Cities Gateway include the annual Herb Brooks Holiday Classic at the National Sports Center, as well as tournaments for Minnesota’s Adult Hockey Association and the junior North American Hockey League. All told, Stauffacher says the region hosts more than 30 hockey tournaments each year, and there’s room for more — especially during the spring and summer.
Meanwhile, the Coon Rapids Ice Center offers an outdoor refrigerated rink with bleachers from November to April, the Four Seasons Curling Club at the Ice House in Blaine has hosted U.S. Olympic trials and major bonspiels, and the Ham Lake SnowBowl Fat Tire Race has become a big attraction.
“It’s a winter wonderland up here,” Stauffacher says. “We embrace winter, rather than try to fight it. Plus, for some people who have never seen snow, that can be a real draw.”
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
In 2014, the Scheels IcePlex opened in Sioux Falls with three sheets of ice. One rink can seat up to 1,300 spectators, and the other two can accommodate 400 each. Since then, the city has become a destination for year-round hockey, figure skating and curling, according to Patrick Daschel, sports and events sales manager for the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re always looking for ways to keep the building full,” he says.
The Sioux Falls Figure Skating Club is looking to host more events, too, as is the Sioux Falls Curling Club, according to Daschel, who adds that the opening of the Scheels IcePlex gives those organizations new clout to promote events.
“We have the premier facilities, with over 700 restaurants and 5,000 hotel rooms, so we can host virtually any ice group that wants to come to town,” Daschel says. “Plus, when your event is in Sioux Falls, you’re front and center.”
Lake County, Illinois
As the third most populous county in Illinois and located just north of Chicago, Lake County will be part of the 2020 CCM World Invite in Chicago in November. Billed as the “world’s largest ice hockey tournament all in one city,” the event is expected to draw more than 10,000 players from almost 530 teams who will collectively compete in a total of 1,250 games at about three dozen rinks in the Chicagoland area.
Lake Forest Academy, Barrington Ice Arena and Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills are among the designated venues.
Additionally, Lake County — which is halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee — also hosts sled hockey, figure skating and ice fishing competitions, according to Teresa Lewis, account executive at Visit Lake County, which is headquartered in Gurnee.
Saint Charles, Missouri
Like its counterparts further north, another ice destination with a double-digit number of ice sheets is Saint Charles, where 13 sheets can found at six venues within a 30-minute driving radius of each other, according to Chris Wilson, sports sales manager for the Greater Saint Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau. One of those venues — the recently opened Centene Community Center in Maryland Heights — contains four sheets (including one outdoors).
“There was this tremendous demand for ice time, not only for hockey but also for figure skating,” Wilson says. “This market knew it could support a number of ice facilities, and now the Centene facility is a tremendous asset for us and a major selling point. As we move forward, we want to work together to host a robust mega-ice event using all the sheets at one time.”
Until then, Saint Charles has plenty of upcoming ice events happening in 2020, including a Disabled Athlete Sports Association sled hockey tournament, as well as large hockey and figure skating competitions at the 2020 Winter Blast festival in Saint Peters.
In late 2019, the Centene Community Ice Center hosted the 2019-2020 USA Hockey Sled Classic with about 30 sled hockey teams from around the country. Also last year, the Rec-Plex in Saint Peters held the Ice Sports Industry World Team Recreational Championships, which brought in about 1,000 skaters with an economic impact of almost $330,000. In 2017, Family Arena in Saint Charles welcomed the NCAA Division I Women’s Frozen Four, and in late January, the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be played in nearby St. Louis.
Pasco County, Florida’s Sports Coast
AdventHealth Center Ice is the largest ice complex in the Southeast, with five sheets of ice under a single roof. They include three NHL-size rinks, one Olympic-size rink and one junior rink.
That’s one reason why Consuelo Sanchez calls Pasco County (commonly referred to in the sports tourism realm as Florida’s Sports Coast) a “premier destination for hockey, figure skating and curling.” Hosted events include the 2017 Four Nations Cup, the 2018 and 2019 Sunshine State Games Figure Skating Championships and the 2019 USA Hockey Adult Men National Championships.
“We also host some of the top figure skaters from the United States and all around the world for camps and special trainings,” Sanchez says. “We had the honor of hosting the 2019 USA Disabled Hockey Festival, which brought more than 100 teams from all over the country to compete over a two-weekend period in six different disabled disciplines.”
AdventHealth Center Ice also comes equipped with an on-site sports medicine clinic, a 2,000-square-foot fitness center and 90 yards of indoor synthetic turf, making the facility ideal for extended training sessions.
“Our destination is central to some of the top worldwide attractions, which are a very important component for families attending events,” Sanchez says. “Event organizers are looking for destinations that can attract more attendees and families.” SDM