Winning Winter | Sports Destination Management

Winning Winter

Eight Destinations (Including Sunny Spots) Offer Opportunities for Ice Sports and More
Jan 03, 2023 | By: Michael Popke

When the Tampa Bay Lightning   and the Dallas Stars faced off in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Stanley Cup Final, it marked the first time in National Hockey League history that both teams competing on professional hockey’s shiniest ice hailed from Southern states.

Indeed, the NHL’s expansion southward, which began in the early 1990s, has proven that hockey success (as well as success in other ice sports, for that matter) need not be limited to cold-weather regions.

Take Tempe, Arizona, for example, where the average temperatures in December, January and February are in the high 60s and low 70s. Ice hockey, figure skating, sled hockey and curling are thriving there.

Tempe, AZ
Tempe, AZ  |  Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

“You could argue that Tempe is now the center of competitive ice sports in all of Arizona, with it hosting the only NCAA Division I hockey team and the only NHL hockey team in the state,” says Adam Mims, assistant general manager of Mullett Arena, which opened in October 2022, is owned by Arizona State University and serves as the NHL’s temporary home for the Arizona Coyotes through at least 2025. “Plus, we are able to expand our youth and adult hockey programs, as well as figure skating and public skating. We [also] have all of the requisite dasher boards to host competition-level sled hockey events. Tempe is truly, and for the first time, a sports destination.”

Michael Martin, president and chief executive officer of Tempe Tourism, agrees. “The uniqueness of finding ice sports in the desert is one thing that sets Tempe apart from most hockey destinations,” he says, adding that the Coyote Curling Club also hosts international curling events in the city. “Additionally, Arizona is a melting pot of people from all over the country, many of whom hail from the regions where they are used to playing in and attending ice-related sports events. For them, it is an opportunity to relive their childhood and introduce their kids to these types of sports.”

While Martin notes that it’s too early to speculate on the full impact Mullett Arena will have on the Tempe area, it’s clear  that the venue provides plenty of new opportunities for the city. The arena is set to host the 2023 Desert Hockey Classic in January, the 2023 Arizona High School Hockey Association Division I championship game, and numerous elite-level hockey camps and clinics.

Santa Clarita, California is another college hockey town that is helping expand the reach of ice sports throughout the country.

Santa Clarita, CA
Santa Clarita, CA  |  Photo courtesy of City of Santa Clarita

“The competitive ice environment here is thriving, with great local participation and as a draw for travel teams and competitions,” says Evan Thomason, economic development associate for the City of Santa Clarita, referring to The Cube-Ice and Entertainment Center Powered by FivePoint, which is home to UCLA’s hockey program and welcomes several hockey, curling and figure skating events.

City officials purchased an existing ice complex in 2020 and spent millions to renovate and rebrand it as The Cube. The three-sheet facility has led to a surge in ice-related sports tourism, according to Thomason, and been featured in several commercial, television and film productions (most prominently in the second season of The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers). A recent operations partnership with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings likely will lead to additional ice opportunities in the future, he adds.

Climate Change

If you’re seeking more traditional settings for ice events (or require the presence of snow), head to the Pacific Northwest or the Midwest to places like Snohomish County, Washington; Saint Charles, Missouri; Elgin, Illinois; Milwaukee and the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

Snohomish County, WA
Snohomish County, WA  |  Photo by Marianne Oelund

Snohomish County is ideal for ice hockey and figure skating, according to Tammy Dunn, executive director of the Snohomish County Sports Commission. Facilities include one Olympic-size ice sheet at OlympicView Arena in Mountlake Terrace, one NHL-size ice sheet at Lynnwood Ice Center and two rinks at Angel Of The Winds Arena in Everett. That arena also is home to the Everett Silvertips, a Western Hockey League team that draws up to 8,300 fans per game.

The Seattle Skating Club hosts the annual Ice Fest Figure Skating Competition every June, which attracts 300 competitors from the Pacific Northwest to OlympicView Arena, and Everett Youth Hockey puts on three tournaments per year.

“With the City of Seattle being awarded a NHL team, the Seattle Kraken, a couple of years ago, ice hockey has grown,” Dunn says. “Not only boys’ and adult hockey, but girls’ hockey has also grown tremendously over the last two years. The Seattle Junior Hockey Association has a Tier 1 girls’ team called the Lady Admirals, and the community is supportive of hockey tournaments and the growth of hockey.”

Head toward the middle of the country and you might just land in the Greater Saint Charles, Missouri area, located about 30 minutes northwest of St. Louis and a destination with a vibrant ice sports scene in the form of youth hockey, figure skating and adaptive sports. In fact, the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA) Midwest Sled Hockey Tournament is held at the two-rink Wentzville Ice Arena every year.

“The Saint Charles region is fortunate to have quality facilities for winter and ice sports competitions,” says Chris Wilson, sales manager for the Greater Saint Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In addition to top-notch facilities, Saint Charles continues to separate itself because of the tourism infrastructure that encompasses the region.”

St. Charles, MO
St. Charles, MO  |  Photo courtesy of Greater Saint Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau

Those facilities include the St. Peters Rec-Plex, which boasts three full-size rinks and will host the annual Show-Me State Games Winter Blast in January. The Ice Sports Industry-sanctioned event has taken on a festival-like status, Wilson says, and will feature hundreds of Missouri-based figure skaters in individual and team competitions throughout the weekend. In addition to figure skating, past Winter Blasts have included youth hockey and pickleball events.

Five hours due north of Saint Charles is Elgin, Illinois, where youth and adult hockey tournaments take place all year long at Canlan Ice Sports in nearby West Dundee. The facility offers three NHL-size rinks and is considered one of the largest in the Chicagoland area, according to Ryan Cortez, director of sales and marketing for the Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Additionally, ice facilities in the Elgin area host games for the Chicago CCM World Invite, considered the largest youth hockey tournament in the world with participating teams from throughout North America and around the globe. Meanwhile, Villa Olivia ranks among the Chicagoland area’s top ski resorts for snowboarding.

Elgin, IL
Elgin, IL  |  Photo courtesy of Canlan Ice Sports

“The Elgin area hosts a variety of tournaments throughout the winter,” Cortez says. “But the most important thing to know is the Elgin area offers big-city amenities without having to pay big-city prices.”

The further north you go, the colder it gets. But that doesn’t slow down winter sports-related tourism in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Milwaukee is home to one of only two speedskating Olympic training facilities in the United States, a nod to the city’s rich tradition in the sport. Olympians Eric Heiden, Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair, Chris Witty and others have trained at the Pettit National Ice Center, which hosted the 2022 U.S. Speedskating Long Track Olympic Trials on its 400-meter oval. Other ice facilities in the city include the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, home to the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals and past host of U.S. Figure Skating’s Skate America.

Milwaukee, WI
Milwaukee, WI  |  Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

The Fiserv Forum arena can accommodate ice events, too, including the annual Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off featuring four NCAA Division I men’s hockey teams. Facilities can even host events on the same day, thanks to their staff’s ability to facilitate quick changeovers.

“Milwaukee gives visitors big-city offerings with small-town accessibility,” says Marissa Werner, director of Sports Milwaukee, noting that the city also provides trails for Nordic combine and biathlon. “Curling is an area favorite, too, and keeps facilities such as the Wauwatosa Curling Club busy with competition throughout the cold months.”

Minnesota’s Twin Cities region offers a winter wonderland of sports tourism opportunities. In fact, the 10 communities surrounding the Minneapolis/St. Paul area serve as a hockey hotbed, according to Al Stauffacher, director of the Twin Cities Gateway (which encompasses Anoka, Arden Hills, Blaine, Coon Rapids, Fridley, Ham Lake, Lino Lakes,

Twin Cities Gateway, MN
Twin Cities Gateway, MN  |  Photo courtesy of National Sports Center

Mounds View, New Brighton and Shoreview).

The area boasts 16 indoor ice rinks. The biggest, by far, is the Super Rink at the National Sports Center in Blaine, which houses eight ice sheets and hosts the annual Herb Brooks Holiday Classic for both boys’ and girls’ high school hockey teams. The facility also is the USA Women’s Olympic Hockey Team headquarters and the site of several World Broomball Championships and USA Broomball National Championships.

Fogerty Ice Arena, located a mile down the road from the Super Rink, offers two ice sheets and is used for many minor league hockey tournaments. Coon Rapids Ice Center has both an indoor and an outdoor rink, and the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine offers six curling ends, hosts major bonspiels and is the former home of the U.S. Olympic Curling Team.

“We have more rinks under one roof in the region than anywhere else, and they are high-quality facilities,” Stauffacher says. “If the size of your event is bigger than eight sheets, we have another eight rinks located one to five miles away.”

The last stop on this tour of warm- and cold-weather destinations for winter and ice sports is located on the shores of the Great Lake that gave Erie, Pennsylvania its name.

Erie, PA
Erie, PA  |  Photo courtesy of Erie Sports Commission

“Erie is known as a summer beach destination, but the city handles lake-effect snow with ease,” says Chris Rosato Jr., events and marketing manager for the Erie Sports Commission. “In the Erie Sports Commission’s history, no major event has been forced to cancel due to excessive snowfall. Plus, event organizers can take advantage of affordable off-season hotel rates with plenty of availability.”

Ice sports, in particular, are flourishing in Erie, from hockey, curling and broomball at ERIEBANK Sports Park to ice fishing on Presque Isle Bay. There also are skiing and snowboarding opportunities at Peek’n Peak Resort in nearby Clymer, New York.

ERIEBANK Sports Park added two NHL-size ice rinks in 2018, making it Erie’s hub for ice-based tournaments, while Erie Insurance Arena hosts hockey and other non-ice sports. It also is home to the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters, and it hosted the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four twice, as well as the 2021 College Hockey America Tournament and the 2018 College Hockey Inc. Ice Breaker Tournament.

Both venues are among those utilized for the Sarah Backstrom Memorial Tournament, which is considered one the largest and longest-running girls’ hockey tournaments in the United States and Canada and recently was named a 2022 Champion of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism by Sports Destination Management. The 2022 event attracted 1,100 participants, generating 3,613 total room nights and an economic impact of $2.4 million.

“The Sarah Backstrom Memorial Tournament will return to Erie in 2023 for its 29th edition in February, poised to be its largest year since Lake Effect Hockey took over the event in 2019,” Rosato says. “Mercyhurst University will also play host to a U.S. Figure Skating Association Intercollegiate Figure Skating National Qualifier event in March, bringing some of the top collegiate figure skaters to Erie.” SDM

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