The Ice Bears’ leading scorer, with 26 goals and 25 assists so far this season, has been influential to the team on and off the ice. With no knowledge of Springfield, Missouri, or the Bears, Nikita Salnikov moved from his home in Benza, Russia, to Dallas, Texas, at 17 years old. In Dallas, Nikita played on a junior hockey team called the Texas Brahams under now-Missouri State head hockey coach Jeremy Law.
After playing for the Brahams for a year, Nikita traveled back home. He was there for two years and played for the Kuznetskie Medvedi for a year and the Sakhalin Sharks for the other year.
“I was still in contact with Jeremy Law, and he wanted me to play for Springfield Express,” Nikita said.
In 2014, Springfield Express was the first club hockey team in Springfield since 2005. Springfield Express is no longer functioning, as the owners were unable to negotiate lower fees for an arena lease.
Nikita played his final year of junior team eligibility with Springfield Express.
“I really wanted to go to the professional team, and I got invited by two teams in ECHL, which is like NHL farm teams,” Nikita said.
After receiving tryout invitations from the Wichita Thunder and the Tulsa Oilers, Nikita began to train by himself and occasionally with Springfield Express during their extra ice time.
“Unfortunately, the month before tryouts I dislocated my AC joint — it was completely out of place,” Nikita said. “We were scrimmaging in one of Springfield Express’ practices, and I got hit by another player.”
The AC joint connects the clavicle with the shoulder blade. The injury put Nikita out for an entire year, only practicing a few times.
“I had to be in a sling for five weeks, and then I had to go to physical therapy,” Nikita said.
During that time, Law approached Nikita about another opportunity: the Ice Bears.
“Jeremy knew I could play for MSU, so he said to get an education first, and then I could try to go pro again after school,” Nikita said.
Nikita started classes at MSU in the fall of 2018. He received an electrical engineering degree in Russia, allowing him to skip most of the general education requirements, so as a 22-year-old, he is currently a junior studying marketing management.
Nikita has enjoyed the change from junior hockey to college hockey with the Ice Bears.
“College hockey is a lot faster because the guys are older and more mature,” Nikita said.
In addition to the new style of play, Nikita has loved the traveling that comes with being an Ice Bear and the relationship with his new teammates.
“We’re like a family; we have a really strong brotherhood,” Nikita said.
Nikita’s personality meshed with the team immediately according to junior defender Chris Brown.
“We’re a pretty close team, so once he was on the team, we welcomed him pretty quick,” Brown said.
Nikita has brought more to the team than goals.
“He’s probably the funniest guy on our team,” Brown said. “He keeps the locker room loose. He’s good to have around. He’s a breath of fresh air.”
Being thousands of miles away from home, Nikita appreciates the Ice Bear family he has gained in Springfield. He still keeps in touch with his family back home, though. He said he calls his parents twice a day and his grandparents at least once a week.
“Since we’re in contact all the time, it’s not too hard being away,” Nikita said.
He travels home to Russia once a year. In December, he almost missed his flight due to the campus squirrels.
“I was supposed to drive to Knoxville and fly from there to Russia,” Nikita said. “I found out that squirrels had eaten the wires in my car.”
He took his car to get it fixed, and the next morning, the wires were chewed again.
“The last day before I left, I found out they had tried to chew them again, but they did not chew them all the way through,” Nikita said. “I was able to start my car and make it to Knoxville on time.”
Nikita’s parents will be traveling to the United States for the first time ever next summer. They should expect a much more friendly environment than they’re used to, Nikita said.
“To be honest, Russia is a pretty serious country. We don’t really smile a lot,” Nikita said. “You guys are more friendly. When you walk by someone, you usually smile at each other. We don’t do that in Russia.”
Nikita has really enjoyed that change — he said it makes him happy all the time.
Fortunately for the Ice Bears, the squirrels haven’t shied him away from Springfield.
Nikita said during the 18 years he has played the sport, he’s never lost his passion for the game. He said his favorite part about hockey is scoring goals and getting fans.
After his time at MSU, he hopes to continue his long career by playing in the NHL.
The Ice Bears will wrap up their season at Mediacom Ice Park on March 1-2 against University of Oklahoma.