Jordan Bratton prepares for a draw against Central Oklahoma

Senior Jordan Bratton prepares for a draw against Central Oklahoma.

As the first half of the Missouri State Ice Bears’ season comes to a close, they are ranked No. 22 in the American Collegiate Hockey Association and have a record of 8-7-1-1.

It may not have been the start the team was hoping for, but the team has slowly improved as the season continued. The same can be said for the attendance at games, which is a high point for the Ice Bears.

The Ice Bears average 900-1,000 attendees per home game at Jordan Valley Ice Park and have had three sellouts this season.

The official numbers are not available for all teams in Division I of the ACHA, but head coach Jeremy Law said the Ice Bears are somewhere in the top three in ACHA attendance nationwide.

Western Collegiate Hockey League Commissioner Chris Perry recently said on an episode of the “WCHL Podcast” the Ice Bears provide one of the best game-day experiences for fans he has seen.

“They do it right up there at Missouri State,” Perry said on the WCHL podcast after a visit to Springfield to watch the Ice Bears play Arizona State on Nov. 15 and 16. “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 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.”

The gameday experience ties in with how the team is run. Stan Melton, who co-founded the team in 2001 and now serves in an advisory role, said the Ice Bears being a club team made them be intentional in how the team is run. The team does not receive any funding from Missouri State.

“Our philosophy when we started the team — and it’s continued since has been: we wanted to operate this just like a professional hockey team operates,” Melton said. “Our funding comes from the sources that we alone generate. The primary sources are player fees, which are around 45%, and the remainder is from ticket sales, merchandise sales and sponsorship sales. We made it into the black financially after the first seven or eight years, and we haven’t left.”

Attendance has also increased in recent years, which coincides with the hiring of Jeremy Law. Melton said attendance has increased with each improvement the team has made, whether it was moving up to Division I of the ACHA, hiring Law or becoming yearly competitors in the ACHA national tournament.

The season so far

The Ice Bears had a rough start to the season — the ice started to melt at Jordan Valley Ice Park right before the team had their third practice.

They were able to practice a few times right before their first game, but it took them a bit to get into the shape other teams were in.

The Ice Bears are inconsistent in their play this season. They beat top-ranked teams like No. 15 Arizona State and No. 8 Central Oklahoma in November, but they have also lost 5-0 to Colorado in October, which is CU’s only victory this season.

The coaches and players said while they are still not where they want to be in terms of their game-by-game performance, they are doing better now than they were in October.

“I think we’re still trying to find out consistent game,” assistant coach Brendan McClew said. “We’re still very hot and cold. We’ve gotten a lot better as of late, though.”

“We have improved in a lot of areas in the game,” sophomore forward Chadd Lounder said. “We still have a lot more to improve on, but we’re on the right track.”

One thing that will help the Ice Bears find consistency is the return of junior forward Nikita Salnikov. Salnikov, the Ice Bears’ leading scorer in the 2018-19 season with 55 points, was injured at the beginning of October but is likely to return against Maryville on Dec. 5.

In Salnikov’s absence, senior forward Josh Bell has been the Ice Bears’ leading scorer with 25 points.

In the net, senior Brady Griffin and junior Bailey Stephens have almost equal time and save percentages higher than .900. Senior Brendan Shuck had a few starts in November, with a save percentage of .899.

The Ice Bears play Maryville on Friday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 6. After playing Maryville they will go on break for the holidays. They will play an outdoor game on Jan. 3, on the NHL Winter Classic ice at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas against Oklahoma. Their regular schedule will come back on Jan. 10 against Lindenwood University, who is currently ranked No. 4.