Winter Wonderlands for Sports
19 Dec, 2021By: Michael Popke
The 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled for Feb. 4-20 in Beijing, which means many kids around the world — including the United States — will decide to give sports such as ice hockey, figure skating, curling and skiing a try. Some of them will even go on to participate competitively.
With many winter sports taking place outdoors and boasting built-in social distancing, it’s no surprise that sports tourism officials are eager to host events this year. SDM identified eight destinations that are ready for an Olympic bounce.
Winter sports destinations embrace outdoor recreation lifestyles, which makes a place like Boise a natural fit for skating and skiing. The city-owned Idaho Ice World boasts two NHL-size hockey rinks and is home to the Boise Curling Club and the Boise Figure Skating Club, while the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads play at 5,000-seat Idaho Central Arena. In December, the arena also hosted the Boise Ice Show, a holiday-themed event sanctioned by U.S. Figure Skating.
Additionally, Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area is located less than 20 minutes from downtown Boise and offers 2,600 acres of skiing and 37 kilometers of groomed Nordic skiing trails. The area also hosts high-profile ski and snowboard competitions.
“Boise’s lifestyle and climate attract restauranteurs, entrepreneurs and artists from around the world,” says Lucas Gebhart, sports sales manager for the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau. “[We have] all the comforts and qualities of a large city, but without the transportation tie-ups and other big-city hassles. In the last few years, Boise has become known for its vibrant, clean and safe downtown with easy access to recreation, food, drink and entertainment options.”
Erie tourism leaders bill this northwestern Pennsylvania city on the shores of Lake Erie as a four-season destination, “and winter doesn’t slow us down,” says Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie Sports Commission.
In fact, ice and snow sports keep Erie active all winter long. The city is home to four indoor ice facilities, all of which have undergone multimillion-dollar renovations in recent years. ERIEBANK Sports Park is the region’s only facility with twin ice pads, featuring two NHL-size rinks, 10 locker rooms and a renovated lobby area. More than 1,500 hotel rooms can be found within three miles of the facility, which is why Erie has become a popular destination for youth hockey tournaments — with 20 scheduled during the 2021-22 season.
Additionally, Erie Insurance Arena, considered the city’s premier ice facility and home to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, has twice hosted the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four (2011 and 2021), plus the 2021 College Hockey America Tournament and the 2018 College Hockey Inc. Ice Breaker Tournament.
Other events are designed to take advantage of Erie’s famous lake-effect snow. The Lake Erie Winter Showcase is a locally organized snowmobile and ATV/UTV race held each February at Lake Erie Speedway, an outdoor facility that hosts motorsports and foot races in the summer and fall but had not previously been used in winter.
“Event organizers in Erie are not only accustomed to frequent snowfall in the winter, but we also are well-equipped to deal with it in a quick manner so that it does not disrupt operations,” Jeanneret says.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Midwestern hospitality abounds in Fort Wayne, according to Nicolle Campbell, director of sales at Visit Fort Wayne. Nestled in northeast Indiana, the city is approximately 200 miles from three major Midwestern cities — Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Memorial Coliseum is home to the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets and is the largest-capacity multi-use venue in Northeast Indiana, the SportONE/Parkview Icehouse is the only facility in the state that offers three NHL-size ice surfaces under one roof, and the Fort Wayne Curling Club is the only curling facility in all of Indiana. That venue offers four ice sheets and hosts the largest Special Needs Curling program in the United States, Campbell says.
Fort Wayne hosted the 2021 USA Hockey Blind Hockey Classic and the 2021 13th Annual Bob Chase Frostbite Sled Hockey Classic, as well as the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Battle of the Blades.
“The proximity of our sports venues to our hotels and entertainment venues, along with our affordable facilities and amenities, make Fort Wayne an appealing destination for tournaments of all ages,” Campbell says. “Fort Wayne’s adaptive sports component also sets our city apart with both ice facilities close to Turnstone, one of just eleven U.S. Olympic & Paralympic training sites in the nation.”
Grand Junction, Colorado
The city of Grand Junction is located in the Grand Valley of western Colorado and is considered a high desert climate. “This makes the winters very mild, so people are able to mountain bike and recreate almost year-round in the valley,” says Ben Snyder, executive director of the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission. “The Grand Mesa is a simple 40-minute drive and is usually snow-covered from November through May. This allows outdoor enthusiasts to experience almost any outdoor activity on the same day.”
In fact, Snyder says several people have challenged themselves to participate in up to 10 different sports in one day in the region — including skiing, snowmobiling, cycling, rock climbing, and stand-up paddle boarding.
The climate also allows Grand Junction to thrive in the winter. The Grand Mesa, considered the world’s tallest flat-top mountain at 11,000 feet, offers skiing opportunities that complement miles of Nordic skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing trails. Powderhorn Mountain Resort is the area’s main skiing venue, with 63 runs and three terrain parks. Indoors, Grand Junction’s River City Sportsplex includes one ice sheet for hockey, curling and figure skating.
“Grand Junction and Mesa County is an incredibly outdoor-focused community,” Snyder says. “Event organizers can utilize the Grand Mesa and its remarkable views and resources, while conveniently accessing the downtown community. Events, especially outdoor events, are very well supported here.”
Warren County, New York
“Warren County is a mecca for winter sports in the Northeast,” proclaims Kristen Hanifin, tourism development and events coordinator for Warren County Tourism. And it’s easy to see why.
Nestled in eastern New York among the Adirondack Mountains, the county not only is home to the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder but it also offers plenty of opportunities for hockey, downhill and Nordic skiing, snowshoe racing, snocross, ice fishing, snowmobiling and fat tire snow biking competitions.
In recent years, the region has welcomed high-profile events in several of those sports, with the Lake George area hosting the Rock Maple Racing snowmobile series, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s downhill and Nordic ski championships, the Gurney Lane Fat Tire Bike Race, the Stone Bridge Caveman 6K Snowshoe Race sand the Lake George Area Ice Fishing Challenge.
Other highlights of the area include Gore and West Mountains for skiing and terrain parks. Sports event participants in Warren County in January and February 2022 also will be able to visit Ice Castles — a new “icy wonderland” attraction consisting of crawl tunnels, ice mazes, ice caverns and ice slides — one of only five of its kind in the United States.
“Warren County/Lake George Area can provide an amazing winter experience for athletes and spectators,” Hanifin says.
Ask Terry Hasseltine to single out a single winter sports destination in Maryland, and he’ll reference the entire state instead.
“We have several venues in Maryland with deep roots in ice sports across the state,” says the executive director of Maryland Sports, referencing curling facilities, several ice arenas, and numerous temporary rinks that are active in the winter. “As a matter of fact, hockey was one of our biggest voices during the efforts to develop our ‘Return to Play’ report during the height of COVID.”
A sampling of venues that can host ice sports include Cabin John Ice Rink in Rockville, with three rinks; the two-rink Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, the former practice facility for the NHL’s Washington Capitals and now home to both the North American Hockey League’s Maryland Black Bears junior team and Team Maryland’s Eastern Hockey League junior team; Ice World in Abingdon, a two-rink facility that houses hockey, figure skating and synchronized skating clubs; and The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, with an Olympic-sized rink, two NHL-sized rinks, a seasonal outdoor mini rink and a year-round training rink.
Additionally, the Gardens Ice House is home to the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel, which features four dedicated curling sheets.
Warmer Weather Alert
Winter and ice sports events are not exclusive to cold-weather destinations with high average annual snowfalls.
Take Irvine, California, which has been bolstering its reputation as an ice destination ever since the Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena opened in 2019 as the final major component of the sprawling 194-acre Orange County Great Park Sports Complex. The $110 million, 280,000-square-foot rink complex houses three NHL-size ice sheets (each with seating for up to 600 spectators), plus the FivePoint Arena’s Olympic-size sheet (with a seating capacity of 2,500).
The facility, owned by the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, hosted California’s first major international curling competition over four days in August 2021 for Season 7 of the NBC Sports Network’s Curling Night in America. The competition began airing in September 2021 and featured men’s, women’s and mixed doubles teams from the United States, Canada, Denmark and Germany.
“This was supposed to happen during the pandemic in 2020, but it got pushed to 2021,” Dave Lucey, director of sports sales for Destination Irvine, says referring to Curling Night in America. “We got a lot of recognition because it was on NBCSN. The ice rink can fit 500 spectators, and at certain times it was almost at capacity.”
Irvine also hosts USA Hockey championships at the Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena, including the 2019 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier I 14U National Championships. The venue was scheduled 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.
“Thirty years ago, hockey wasn’t a big deal out here,” Lucey says. “There were no ice rinks, and it wasn’t part of youth sports back then. In the past 15 or 20 years, it’s become more popular, and we have more teams interested in coming to Southern California for hockey.”
Another unlikely hockey hotbed is Huntsville, Alabama — a destination Joel Lamp, sports convention sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau, calls the “Hockey Capital of the South.” Add some traditional Southern hospitality, a centralized location and a high-profile ice facility, and it’s easy to see why this northern Alabama city consistently hosts weekend hockey events.
The Huntsville Ice Sports Center offers two rinks for ice hockey, figure skating and curling, and the facility underwent “massive” renovations over the past three years, according to Lamp. New and larger locker rooms and multi-purpose rooms help make the venue more capable of hosting major events — including the 2022 South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference Playoffs, which will bring eight teams to compete for the conference championship over three days in early March.
Adding to the city’s enthusiasm for hockey is the Huntsville Havoc, a Southern Professional Hockey League team that plays its home games in the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville.
“We aren’t the typical winter sports destination,” Lamp admits. “But we are easily accessible. On top of that, we have robust winter sports programming — thanks to a diverse population here in Huntsville that has grown up around these sports.” SDM