This season marks the 20th anniversary of the Missouri State Ice Bears as an organization.
In those 20 years, the Ice Bears have evolved from a team funded by its founder to one with two teams making enough money to employ a full-time head coach.
The origins of the team go back to the early 1990s to decisions about building JQH Arena.
In the early ‘90s, Ice Bears co-founder Stan Melton was a member of the Jordan Valley Park advisory commission. The Ice Bears’ current home is Jordan Valley Ice Park, located inside the larger park. Originally, the scope of the project was much bigger.
“There was a plan put together to build a 10,000-15,000 seat arena for Springfield,” Melton said. “There was also talk of bringing pro hockey here in the form of a minor league team. But, around that point, John Q. Hammons made the decision to build JQH.”
The decision to build JQH, an 11,000 seat, multipurpose arena on Missouri State’s campus, shut down the original plan.
With the momentum for a larger arena dying, the Springfield-Greene County Park Board decided to go a different route and build an ice rink.
Melton was friends with then-Park Board Director Dan Kinney and had told him if an ice rink was ever built, he would be as involved as possible to make it happen.
“I told him, ‘I would just love to see the sport of hockey come to Springfield,’” Melton said.
In the late ‘90s, the park board moved forward with the construction of the Jordan Valley Ice Park with the help of community support that was in part organized by Melton. The rink opened in 2001 with a seating capacity of 1,100, which was not large enough for professional hockey but was large enough for collegiate hockey.
Melton had a rink; now he needed a team to play in it.
In the fall semester of 1999, Melton along with friend Todd Laster, who had played club hockey at Kansas University, sat down at a bar with an MSU student.
The student’s name was Andy Marquardt, and he turned out to be the key to the organization’s founding. He had played hockey at the high school level near St. Louis.
“I asked him, ‘Would you be interested in starting a club hockey team here at Missouri State?’ and he jumped at the idea.
“The main reason I knew we could build a team was at the time Missouri State had roughly one-third of its students from the St. Louis area,” Melton said. “Hockey has been growing there since the late ‘60s. I knew there had to be enough guys that had played in high school.”
After their conversation in the bar, Marquardt started recruiting players for the team — many of which were from the St. Louis area. He worked at it alongside Melton and co-founder Curt Bussen for two years until the rink opened in the fall of 2001.
The first iteration of the Ice Bears had 17 players who had played in high school and six roller-hockey players. They held their first practices at the Jones Center in Springdale, Arkansas. Benjamin Alexander was the first coach. Alexander played adult-league hockey in St. Louis most weekends, so he assumed the coaching mantle as a volunteer.
The Ice Bears opened their inaugural season the same day Jordan Valley Ice Park opened. MSU invited the St. Louis Blues alumni team, St. Louis University club team and a junior team from St. Louis to play in a round-robin tournament.
“Our very first game was against the Blues alumni,” Melton said. “I don’t have children of my own, but I kind of know how parents feel when their kids play their first game, especially playing the Blues alumni team. They still had (NHL All-Star Bernie Federko) and several others. It was just a tremendous feeling to see it happen.”
From there the Ice Bears began competition in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the largest collegiate hockey organization in the country. The ACHA serves as the governing body of most club-level hockey in America.
The team transitioned from Division III to Division II in 2004, which coincided with the addition of a junior varsity Division III team, which still competes at that level.
After several national tournament appearances in the early 2010s, the team moved up to ACHA Division I and joined the Western Collegiate Hockey League, a league in which 2014 national champion Arizona State and 2015 and 2017 national champion Central Oklahoma play. The Ice Bears were not ill-equipped to compete at a higher level, being invited to the national tournament several times in the late 2010s.
For all the success on the ice, the Ice Bears’ success in terms of fan engagement and gameday experience is probably their most impressive accomplishment.
In the 2019-20 season, the Ice Bears sold out several home games, averaging between 900-1,100 spectators each game.
“They do it right up there at Missouri State,” WCHL commissioner Chris Perry said on the WCHL Podcast after a visit to an Ice Bears game in November 2019. “It’s always amazing — the level of organization in terms of the off-ice personnel — and the fans. I don’t know that I saw one fan that did not have some sort of Ice Bear paraphernalia on. It goes a long way to developing a devoted fanbase, and boy do they have it up there.”
Even in a season where fan attendance has been limited by COVID-19, the level of efficiency and professionalism in the organization has been a welcome surprise for new assistant coach Clif Cook. Cook previously was the coach of a junior team in Montana.
“It’s organized here, more so than some of the places I’ve been in the past,” Cook said. “It’s nice to have a great volunteer staff. It’s a change of pace for me; I’m not used to that. At my past teams, I’ve kind of had to handle most of the pregame. I’d be at the rink at 10 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game because I had to set up the broadcast, the beer and everything else. Now, I can just show up a couple hours before and be a coach.”
The Ice Bears continue their 20th season on Jan. 12 and 13 at Liberty University in Virginia.
Follow Stephen Terrill on Twitter, @stevethe2nd
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