Play the Winter Away
31 Oct, 2009By: Juli Anne Patty
As November begins, Americans are facing the start of another winter. In some parts of the country, the frozen season can stretch on for six months or more. But frigid temps don't have to mean hibernation. Bundle up and head outside, because snow and ice also mean a chance to play some of the world's most exciting sports.
Perhaps the most popular of all snow sports, skiing - in all its many forms - and its cousin, snowboarding, are responsible for thousands of sporting events across America every winter. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), national governing body for Olympic skiing and snowboarding, ensures that America stays on top of the world competition.
USSA is just one of many organizations to plan and execute ski and snowboarding events, along with other organizations like the United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association, the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the Far West Ski Association and the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, to name a very few. From amateur to elite and youth to senior, ski and snowboarding events can be found in almost every snowy corner of the map.
Skiing can be traced back thousands of years, but modern skiing owes its birth to Norwegian Sondre Norheim, who developed the first heel strap, made from birch tree root, which allowed for the necessary ski control while also keeping the toe in the toe strap, even during jumps. While that was modern skiing's first major leap, the innovators were just getting warmed up. Skiing's most recent transformations have taken place in the freestyle arena with ski cross, the newest Olympic and freestyle sport.
A blend of traditional alpine racing and motocross, ski cross requires a course that has a variety of terrain, natural or artificial, including rollers, banks, table tops, step downs and pro jumps.
Ski cross will make its Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Games, but fans have been getting their ski cross fix long before that, especially in one of America's snow sport meccas: Lake Placid, New York. In 2009, the International Ski Federation (FIS) Freestyle World Cup Tour made a stop on Whiteface Mountain at the Nature Valley Freestyle Cup, which included the East Coast's first-ever world cup ski cross competition. The World Cup will ride into town again in 2010,just ahead of ski cross's Olympic unveiling.
But if traditional skiing and ski events are more your speed, the Pennsylvania Poconos might be just the ticket. With eight major ski areas offering downhill and cross-country skiing and snowboarding, the Pocono Mountains are one of the East Coast's best places to play the winter away.
In recent years, the Poconos have seen major upgrades, including new facilities and technologically advanced grooming equipment. The area's more than 165 slopes and trails offer a landscape to suit any skill level or event, with steep expert slopes and challenging moguls, as well as moderate and beginner hills and terrain parks and half-pipes for snowboarders.
Part ATV, part sled, with a little bit of ski thrown in too, snowmobiles made their first appearance in Wisconsin in the late 19th century. Given the wintry landscape where they were born, snowmobiles are certainly an example of necessity mothering invention, but don't get the idea that these vehicles were simply constrained to practical purposes. Almost as soon as snowmobiles appeared, the first races began. Today snowmobiling is a huge recreational and competitive sport, with, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, a $22 billion annual economic impact in the United States.
A big part of that impact comes from tourism, in the form of both recreational and competitive snowmobiling. And if competition is what you're looking for, there are plenty of opportunities.
World Championship Snow King Hill Climb
Each March, nearly 10,000 spectators converge on Jackson, Wyoming to watch some of the world's best professional and amateur snowmobilers race up the 1,500 vertical feet to the top of Snow King Mountain - a 16 percent grade that becomes a 45-degree angle near the summit. At some places on the course, it's difficult to stand, let alone ride a snowmobile, and that's why this race is the world championship. And while not every competitor makes it to the top, part of the fun, according to many spectators, is watching the snowmobiles that don't quite reach the summit come tumbling back down.
The Snow King Hill Climb is part of a four-day festival that draws some of the sport's biggest names. But even though it's a world championship hill climb, the race's organizers, the Jackson Hole Snow Devils, planned carefully so that even snowmobiling novices can take part. Just ask Heather Falk, director of tourism for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, who made a respectable hill climb showing of her own.
"It's an amazing experience! The race is split into many divisions, which encourages even the weekend warriors to partake in the festivities,"says Falk. "The last weekend in March is always sold out in Jackson Hole thanks to the race, but it's also great for the community because the Snow Devils donate so much of the money back via scholarships and fundraising events for locals in need."
Like ski cross, snocross, also called snowcross, involves racing on a course of artificial and natural turns, jumps and obstacles, except in the case of snocross, all this is done at high speeds on snowmobiles.
The International Series of Champions, Inc. (ISOC) is a race organization that promotes snocross nationally and regionally in North America. According to Andy Groebner, director of marketing and communications for ISOC, snocross and snowmobile racing in general are gaining a serious following, which means you might see snocross or one of its cousins coming to your area sometime soon - even in places where snow is scarce.
ISOC's ideal race locations include ski hills and horse tracks, like Minnesota's Canterbury Park, host of the annual Air Force National, part of ISOC's national tour. But one of the organization's biggest events takes place in the summer when there's no snow to be found, even in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Hay Days, a weekend of snowmobile grass drag racing every September, is actually one of the sport's biggest events, as well as a venue where snowmobile manufacturers unveil their newest developments. And like ISOC's other events, it's growing.
"Our fan base is for sure growing, with record attendance for the national series and record participation in several events last year," says Groebner. "And we're always looking for new venues to expand our sports."
Cross Country Snowmobiling
So, to recap, snowmobilers race up and around, but they also go across, cross country, that is, a particular kind of snowmobile racing promoted and organized by the United States Cross-Country Snowmobile Association (USCC), an organization always on the lookout for new courses big enough to accommodate its events.
"We generally need 200 acres or more, preferably with a variety of terrain," says Jim Urquhart, marketing and media relations manager, USCC. "Because it's a long course, there's a lot of mystique that goes along with cross country. A guy's fine at one fueling stop and when he comes into the next, his sled's all banged up or missing a ski. In cross country, the excitement is in what you don't see."
Urquhart's assessment must be pretty accurate, since USCC has seen even more growth than the other sectors of snowmobile racing in recent years. And while the USCC puts on some races annually, like North Dakota's Grafton Equipment 100 in December, they're also eager to grow the sport with races in new areas as well.
Many people look forward to the first days of winter for two reasons: a stick and a puck. Ice hockey's popularity was once limited to colder regions, but the sport has enjoyed major growth in recent decades, with USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, counting more than half a million members in its ranks today.
Fargo, North Dakota
Fargo, North Dakota, one of hockey's great American hotbeds, hosts the giant 112-team International Squirt Hockey Tournament, which takes over 13 sheets of ice and pretty much the entire city for the 26th year this February. But Fargo extended its hockey commitment in 2008 when it opened the Urban Plains Center (UPC), a 5,000 seat hockey arena, home to the new USHL hockey team, the Fargo Force,as well as the 2009 IIHF World U18 Championship.
"Most arenas have either 1,000 or 12,000 seats, which is often just too small or too big," says Steve Saxlund, athletic sales manager, Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The UPC is the perfect intimate venue, big enough for larger events, but the right size so that it doesn't feel empty for smaller events. It makes for an exciting atmosphere."
Fargo is just getting started with the UPC too. Currently the Metro Sports Foundation, the non-profit organization that owns and operates the Urban Plains Center & Tournament Facility, plans to add a four-sheet tournament center to the facility in the near future.
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Nearly 100 miles due north in Grand Forks, North Dakota, hockey finds another enthusiastic home, along with another quickly growing ice sport, curling.
"We're a big hockey community, especially thanks to the Division I hockey team at the University of North Dakota," explains Julie Rygg, executive director, Visit Grand Forks. "We're extremely fortunate to have the Ralph Engelstad Arena, which is an incredible facility, so amazing that it's really hard to even understand this building until you see it."
"The Ralph," as the facility is affectionately called, was built through a $100-plus million donation by UND alumnus Ralph Engelstad. The 400,000 square-foot arena, home to the UND Fighting Sioux as well as numerous hockey, ice skating and curling events, offers granite concourses, leather seats throughout, a training facility,14 locker rooms, an Olympic Sheet of Ice, and the facility's newest addition, the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center for basketball and volleyball.
Rochester, New York
Not to be outdone by the Upper Midwest, Rochester, New York also has a big place in its heart - and facilities - for hockey. The city is home to a number of well-known hockey tournaments, including the more than 80-team Rochester Fire on Ice Girls Hockey Tournament each November.
"We're very fortunate to be blessed with a great deal of hockey business," says Scott Bell, sales and marketing, Monroe County Sports Commission. "People like to come here, I think, because it's a big city with a little town feel. And we take sports very seriously."
Play in Its Purest Form
Snow and ice sports are all about ways to enjoy the winter, but one event truly captures that spirit of play, the University of Okoboji Winter Games. A fictitious college created for the sole purpose of celebration,the University of Okoboji in Okoboji, Iowa, offers numerous sporting events throughout the year, but the Winter Games are its longest-running and most renowned.
Entering its 30th year this January, the Games fill every hotel room in this Iowa resort town, whose summer population of greater than 100,000 shrinks to 16,000 during the winter.
"We don't have exact participation numbers, but our restaurants all have their biggest day of the year during the Games," says Tom Kuhlman, executive director, Okoboji Chamber of Commerce.
From the Games' oldest and most popular event - the hockey-like broomball tournament - to its more unusual events, like the Freeze Your Fanny Bike Ride and the polar bear plunge, Okoboji makes the most of its winter landscape and keeps its facilities humming even during its coldest months.
Now that's the way to make winter work for your community.