Winter is the season of the shortest days and the coldest temperatures. Its dark, frosty toe-freezing months might be dreary if it weren't for one thing: sports. Let's talk about the athletic pursuits that fill those frigid hours with fun. Put on your boots, and let's find some snow and ice sports.
You might say the State of Michigan has some experience with winter.
"Being where we are being in Michigan, we've definitely got all the four seasons," says Mike Guswiler, executive director, West Michigan Sports Commission. "As a sports commission looking to bring in youth and amateur sports, we don't want to sit idle in that fourth season. We've got lots of opportunity and resources for winter sports here and a laundry list of cold weather activities."
Don't go calling ice fishing just an "activity," though. It's a serious winter sport, and the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC) is here to prove it. NAIFC is a corporation established by fishermen to advance the sport of ice fishing in North America by providing the highest level of competition, education and product promotion.
NAIFC hosts premier multi-day fishing events throughout the upper Midwest. The NAIFC Tournament Series season runs from January through March, with the NAIFC Tournament Series Championship Invitational held the following December.Each season consists of several regional qualifier events held in states across the ice belt, and one of those events will take place this January in Manistee, Mich., on Lake Hamlin, a walleye, perch,pike and bluegill hot spot.
In keeping with the NAIFC mission, the tournament includes a Pro Staff Seminar program, geared toward introducing new amateur fishers to the tournament ice fishing world. After the seminar, teams are paired with NAIFC Pro Staff in smaller groups for tutorials, and the teams are then invited to pre-fish on Hamlin Lake Saturday morning before the tournament. The entire process is designed to put the new anglers' comfort level on the fast track and make the tournament process less intimidating.
Ice fishing is a part of other events throughout Michigan as well, including a few winter festivals. But you probably won't be surprised to hear about another popular winter event that brings thousands of people to the state: ice hockey.
"Hockey is really becoming an all-around, nationwide sport, but it's certainly big here, and we've got the facilities to support it," says Guswiler. "And thanks to those facilities, we've also got great homes for other sports like figure skating and curling."
West Michigan is also home to Pando Winter Sports Park, which touts itself as the birthplace of competitive snowboarding. Just 15 minutes outside of Grand Rapids, Mich., in picturesque Rockford, Pando offers beginner to advanced competitive and recreational skiing and snowboarding.
Another Michigan winter sports hot spot can be found at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, a winter sports facility within the boundary of Michigan's state parks. Muskegon is home to North America's only wheeled luge, making it available for year-round events, such as the Mad Media Luge Race, which sped downhill for the 25th time in February 2010. The Complex is also home to variety of other events, including the Michigan Pond Hockey Championship held at Muskegon State Park and the West Michigan Youth Wintersportsfest, a three-day competition inviting athletes to compete in 16 different sports, from traditional winter sports like snowshoeing to a variety of unique indoor sports, including roller derby and competitive cheerleading.
One of Grand Rapids' homegrown events that draws much more than a hometown crowd is the Downtown Rail Jam, hosted by The B.O.B., a local restaurant, on a 30-foot ramp constructed in surrounding parking lots. Open to riders of all skill levels, the Rail Jam, now in its second consecutive year, is quickly becoming a can't-miss Grand Rapids tradition.
"We're pretty lucky here in Madison," says Jamie Patrick, director of sports sales and program development, Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Our people take advantage of our winters, and they love it. It creates a vibe that perpetuates throughout Madison all year round."
Madison's curling club is a major part of that winter-loving tradition. One of America's largest curling clubs, the Madison Curling Club began in 1921, when several University of Wisconsin professors and Madisonians made one sheet of ice under the stadium bleachers on the University of Wisconsin campus. Today, the curling club has new digs, a multipurpose, six-sheet facility at William McFarland Park in McFarland, Wisc.
The Club hosted the 2010 Curling Club National Championships and is home to the United States women's Olympic curling team.
Curling is no exception; having high caliber athletes and athletic events is no aberration for Madison. "There is a real expertise in our community," explains Patrick. "We've got it in pretty much all our winter sports."
In the words of the Madison Speed Skating Club (MSSC), "If there is a hot bed for a sport on ice, Madison is the place." MSSC, the second-oldest speed skating club in the United States, has a long history of sending athletes to the Olympics. In fact, at least one member from the Madison Speed Skating Club has been on every US Olympic Speed Skating Team since 1972.
Perhaps all that elite athleticism comes from the heartiness of the Madison people. One of Madison's most unique events last year was the Camp Randall Classic in February, when the University of Michigan took on the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a college hockey game -outside.
"What made this a unique event is that it was an outdoor ice hockey in February in Wisconsin," says Diane Morgenthaler, director of marketing, Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People just really got into it. People love hockey here, and our spectators make a great fan base."
"People here are also pretty passionate about cross country skiing, too, both skate and ski style," says Patrick. Madison's Albert Park even has night cross country skiing because daytime ski hours just wouldn't be enough.
One of Madison's premiere winter events, Madison Winter Festival, aims to keep this hearty Madison winter athleticism alive. Established in 2004 to promote fun and healthy winter lifestyles, the Madison Winter Festival showcases snow sports as well as a range of recreational activities and opportunities. US Ski and Snowboard make a tour stop at the Festival, and the event also includes a cyclocross race, the state high school cross country championships, and the REI Snowshoe Relay.
That's not the full extent of Madison's expertise, either. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association hosts 16 of its 19 state championships in Madison. "So, people in our state know Madison is a great place to come," says Patrick "And these events have a huge impact on Madison."
The events take place at a several of Madison's fine facilities, including the Alliant Energy Center, a 164-acre, multi-building complex featuring Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Exhibition Hall, Willow Island and the Arena, a prime Madison hockey venue.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
"Planners looking for a ‘sports city' to host an event already know Green Bay as sports friendly," says Brenda Krainik, director of marketing, Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. "As a city of just over 100,000, we regularly host72,000 visitors for Packers games, so we're pretty good at the hospitality aspect of sports event hosting. Green Bay is also cost effective for the planner and the attendees, and the CVB offers plenty of free services to assist in successful hosting."
Green Bay backs that claim up with a full roster of exceptional facilities and winter sports. At the Brown County Arena, a 7,500-seat facility that hosts more than 95,000 attendees per year, various high school hockey invitational tournaments have been fought out, as well as a number of motorcycle ice racing events. The Arena also hosts an annual ‘throwback' weekend every year for Green Bay Gamblers, a USHL team that plays in the city's Resch Center.
The Green Bay Resch Center is the newest venue within the Brown County Veterans Memorial Complex, with a seating capacity of 10,000 seats. With unique single-level "bowl" seating, the Resch Center is home to some of the biggest winter games in town, including the Green Bay Gamblers home games, the 2006 NCAA DI Men's Ice Hockey Regionals and the upcoming 2011 and 2012 NCAA D1 Men's Ice Hockey Regionals.
Ice sports are some of Green Bay's main events, and some of the fiercest matches go down at the Cornerstone Community Ice Center, which hosted the 2010 US Speedskating Junior Nationals, the 2010 USA Hockey Girls and the 2005 and 2010 Women's National Championships, as well as various Saint Norbert College hockey events, including many D3 hockey regional and conference championships. In 2011, the three-sheet Center, home of Green Bay Area Youth Hockey, will host the Upper Great Lakes Regional Figure Skating Championships.
Jackson Hole, the valley that rests between the Teton and the Gros Ventre Ranges in west central Wyoming, has a solid reputation as one of America's finest winter places to play. And play is exactly what they do in Jackson.
"Broomball is huge here," says Heather Falk, director of tourism, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. "And it's not for the timid."
Played on a hockey rink with two teams consisting of six players on each side, broomball is similar to hockey and soccer. A player uses a stick (a shaft with a molded broom-shaped head) to maneuver a six-inch diameter ball up and down the ice, and all of this is accomplished while wearing spongy-soled shoes.That's right. No skates.
Broomball, a growing sport that now has leagues in 26 states, is so big in Jackson that games are played almost every night of the week, culminating in a huge tournament at the end of the season.
Jackson is also home to a variety of other events and facilities that make it easy to play the winter days away, including Pole Pedal Paddle, hosted annually by the Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In its 36th year in 2010, Pole Pedal Paddle is a four-event race, where contestants compete either individually or in teams and consists of an alpine ski leg, a cross-country ski leg, a bicycle leg and a boating leg.
Jackson Hole is also the birthplace of the North American Ski Joring Association, a sanctioning body that seeks to promote this unique winter sport. Ski joring was invented several hundred years ago during snowy Scandinavian winters; Laplanders skied on Nordic skis holding reins attached to reindeer. In the mid-1950s, American ranchers took up ski joring, and the utilitarian exercise eventually evolved over the next few decades from field to highly specialized competitive sport. Today, ski joring competitors must navigate a course of jumps, gates and sometime spear rings.
Competitive ski joring competitions are held in 5 states and in several countries worldwide, and some competitions include a variation on the traditional sport, including skiers pulled by dogs, mules and even snowmobiles.
Whiling Away the Winter
Somewhere, maybe there are a few people whiling away the winter hours, gazing out at a snowy landscape with a hot drink, but those numbers are getting smaller all the time. In the cities and communities blessed with an abundance of snow and ice, there are too many ways to get out and play the winter away. With a profusion of thrilling events and exceptional facilities all across the country, there's simply no excuse for not finding a sports that excites you. So, get out there and play, America. Winter only comes once a year!