A Closer Look at the Junior Hockey Draft Process
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
It's that time of year again, the time when pretty much every serious youth hockey player between the ages of 15 and 18 starts talking about getting drafted.
You mean the NHL Draft? Are they selecting kids that young? Wow, they must be really good.
No, not the NHL Draft, although that also is coming up July 7-8, and yes many of these kids are very good. The ones who do get drafted represent the future of hockey at both the collegiate and professional levels, but what we are talking about are junior hockey drafts.
Welcome to junior hockey draft season 2023!
While many kids and families are still unwinding from their youth hockey seasons – with tryouts in many areas already completed and nicer weather finally having arrived – for young players with aspirations of playing junior hockey this year or in the near future, the grind is just beginning.
That’s right, even as playoffs have just concluded in North American 20U junior hockey leagues, the process of picking next year’s teams already has begun. What does that mean exactly?
With the North American Hockey League draft approaching on Wednesday, June 14, we thought it was a good time to post a refresher course on the junior hockey draft process. The NAHL is the one of two USA Hockey-sanctioned tuition-free junior leagues in the United States; the other sacntioned tuition-free league is the United States Hockey League (USHL).
These "free" leagues are the santioned Tier 1 (USHL) and Tier 2 (NAHL) circuits in the United States, and combined they send hundreds of players to NCAA Division I college programs on a yearly basis. Pretty much every USHL player ends up playing at the Division I level or professionally, while the NAHL produces more D1 players than any league and sends the rest of it's players on to play at the Division III level.
Getting drafted by one of the top junior leagues in North America is quite an honor, but it's only the beginning of the process. While it gives you a leg up on the other players who might be attending a team's selection camp in hopes of making a team, it by no means is a guarantee that you will ultimatley play for the team that drafted you.
In recent weeks and months, player drafts have been held by the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL), the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the United States Hockey League (USHL), the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL), the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and the National College Development Conference (NCDC). In the weeks ahead the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) will hold their drafts.
That’s just a sampling, and there are other leagues that may hold drafts of some kind. It can be challenging to keep track of it all, but by the end of June, the North American junior leagues that draft players will have held their entry, futures, regional, supplemental, import or other types of drafts. At that point, after months of scouting players all over the continent and around the world, junior teams will be well on their way to figuring out who will be invited to training camps and ultimately make their final rosters in late August or early September.
The draft process, with the number of different drafts that take place and various types of drafts that are held, can be confusing to families of players who are just becoming eligible to be selected and beginning to consider if they want to pursue junior hockey. Some leagues already are drafting players who were born as recently as 2007. When you mix in junior-hockey jargon such as tender agreements, letters of intent, protected lists, affiliate players and main camps, it can become almost mind-numbing.
This article is an attempt to simplify the process somewhat and explain the terminology in hopes of providing at least some clarity for those who are either about to embark on this crazy journey or are at least strongly considering it. And for those players who are fortunate enough to have been drafted – congratulations, by the way! – but have no idea how, why or what is going on, hopefully this article will help them understand their situations a little better.
Some Facts About Junior Hockey
For players who would like to play NCAA varsity college hockey at any level, it’s pretty much accepted that they will need to play some level of junior hockey after high school, prep school or 18U. A quick search of any NCAA Division I, II or III roster will show you that most – if not all – of the players have two, three or even more years of junior experience.
It is estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the players on NCAA rosters have played some form of junior hockey before committing to their college teams. Yes, there are New England Prep school players who advance directly to NCAA Division III programs, usually in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), and some of the top players from those prep leagues might progress directly to the Division I level, just as players from top Minnesota high school programs and the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) might.
But those players are few and far between, and the numbers seem to be shrinking on an annual basis. Hockey isn’t like other any other sport when it comes to college recruiting. Although there are players who commit to NCAA Division I programs at age 15 or 16, most of them – and pretty much everyone else who will make that jump – will play between one and three years of juniors after graduating from high school. And many early commits either decommit or are decommitted if they don't develop physically or as players to levels that many D1 programs require.
The North American junior leagues producing the majority of the Division I commitments are the Tier 1 USHL, the Tier 2 NAHL and the Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) in the United States as well as the Canadian “Jr. A” British Columbia Junior Hockey League (BCHL), the AJHL, the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) and the Central Canada Junior Hockey League (CCHL). Those Canadian leagues, except the BCHL, are part of the nine-league Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL).
Players who compete in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which is Canada’s major-junior hockey circuit featuring the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), are not eligible to play NCAA hockey because of the various benefits they receive while playing at that level.
The USHL, NAHL and NCDC are the three “tuition-free” leagues in the U.S. The USHL consists of primarily high-level Division I and professional prospects, while the NAHL commits more than 300 players annually combined at the D1 and D3 levels and the NCDC generally has 40-plus Division I commits competing during most seasons. Most of the D1 commits playing in the NCDC already have committed before playing in the league, but the NCDC does commit a dozen or more players directly each season as well, and just about all of its players who don’t play at the Division I level receive Division III offers.
In Canada, the BCHL is the top producer of NCAA Division I players on an annual basis, followed closely by the AJHL. The OJHL and CCHL produce a dozen or more D1 commits annually, and pretty much every Canadian Jr. A-level league sends players on to play Division III hockey. Canadian Jr. A teams also develop numerous players who advance to play in the CHL.
South of the border, at the pay-to-play Tier 3 junior level, the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) and United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) produce the most Division III players, with the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) a fairly distant third. Every now and then a Tier 3 U.S. junior player will work his way up the ladder and end up playing at the D1 level, but that is extremely rare.
A detailed breakdown of how junior hockey is structured in the United States can be found by CLICKING HERE.
We don’t want to get too caught up in those details here, though. The purpose of this article is to explain the junior hockey draft and tender process and how players eventually find their way to that level of play in North America.
A player who is drafted by a team in any junior hockey is league is that team’s property in that league only until released or traded.
Junior hockey drafts are not really any different than drafts in professional sports except the players will not be signing for lucrative monetary bonuses or contracts that will pay them six or seven figures for the foreseeable future. We aren’t going dive too deeply in the minutiae of the numerous different types of drafts held by the various North American junior leagues here. The main point to understand is that once a player is drafted in a particular league, he can’t speak to, try out for or sign with another team in that league. Drafted players can continue to pursue playing opportunities in other junior leagues, however.
Players who are drafted can be selected by teams in a different league and at a different level. For example, in the United States it is possible for players to be selected in both the NAHL and NCDC drafts. Many players who are property of NAHL teams are drafted in Phase II of the USHL draft each year. Players selected in U.S. drafts can be selected by Canadian teams and vice versa. The only Tier 3 league that holds a draft in the United States is the NA3HL. My son was drafted by teams in the NCDC, NAHL and NA3HL.
One question we often hear is whether players need to “apply” for drafts. They do not. Each league sets the parameters for its various drafts, and teams have scouts all over North American watching prospects year round. If player has been scouted and a junior team is legitimately interested in him, it will not be a secret. They will be in touch and let the player know that they have interest.
For example, this year the USHL drafted only players born in 2007 during its Phase I draft, while any junior-eligible player (2003-2007) could have been selected during Phase II. NAHL teams can select any players eligible to play junior hockey the following year, while the NCDC only drafted players born in 2006 or 2007.
Some teams and leagues are known to draft for the future, while others draft for immediate need and most strike a balance between the two approaches.
In Canada, some leagues will draft even younger players during bantam drafts to get the players in their systems and foster their development, while other drafts will be held for older available players.
Junior teams scout top youth players all over North America every year using regionally based scouts stationed in every corner of the continent. Organizations become very familiar with the top draft-eligible players and compile lists that eventually turn into their “draft boards,” which are similar to what professional organizations create.
While there is no formal application process to be considered for a draft, there also is no way any organization can see every capable player in North America every year. Older players should do their homework to figure out which of the organizations they might be interested In playing for might have the most available spots at their position the following season and reach out to them early and often.
It’s a great idea to email the coaches and general manages expressing interest, send video of games and provide updates throughout the season to build relationships that hopefully will blossom into opportunities.
Younger draft-eligible players might want to consider attending a league or team combine, but only after first reaching out to the organizations to get on their radar. Players don’t want to be another number on a spreadsheet when attending a tryout camp or combine. It’s best to make an impression and build a relationship prior to attending by sending an introductory email along with some video clips so that there is a better chance that the team’s coaches and scouts will make a point to watch the player specifically at the camp or combine.
The number of players drafted varies from league to league, and just like at the professional level, draft picks are assets that can be traded for players, other draft picks and even cash.
Contrary to what many people believe, a tender agreement or “tender” is not a contract to play for a team in the future. It functions similarly to a draft pick in that any player who signs a tender with an organization is that team’s property in that specific league until released or traded. The player can’t talk to other teams or be drafted by any other teams in that league. Tenders also can be signed with teams in more than one league.
Teams offer tenders to players they think have a good chance of making their roster the following season. They will do this at some point during or after the previous season to acquire an asset and not risk exposing coveted players to other teams in their league during the draft. Teams possess a limited number of tenders each year, and that number varies from league to league. In some leagues, teams lose draft picks when players sign tender agreements with them.
Just as with draft picks, tenders are an asset that can be traded within a league for other assets.
It's very important that players and parents understand that neither draft picks nor tenders are guaranteed a spot on a team’s final roster. Players who are drafted or tendered usually must endure a lengthy process to make a team’s final roster that includes attending an evaluation camp, often known as a “main camp,” at which the training camp roster of 30-35 players is chosen from a group of up to 200 players. Those players then participate in training camp prior to the season in hopes of earning a spot on the final 23- or 25-player roster.
Because teams use assets to draft or tender players, these players often have an advantage over other players attending the summer evaluation camps and in most cases are invited to training camp to compete for a final roster spot,
In the U.S, the Tier 1 and Tier 2 leagues (USHL, NAHL, NCDC) have a tender system, while at the Tier 3 level, EHL and NA3HL teams can make tender offers. It isn't always recommended for player to sign a tender in a Tier 3 "pay to play" junior league, because it isn't a guarantee to be on the team and it limits the players options within that league. As with anything, the decision whether to sign a Tier 3 tender depends on a player's personal situation, options and relationship with the team making the offer.
Letter of Intent
In Canada, letters of intent are similar to American tender agreements. Leagues in the Jr. A CJHL offer letters of intent to protect players they think can help their teams the following season from being drafted or signed by other teams. Each team has a limited number these letters that can be awarded every year.
This list includes the players that are property of a particular team in a specific league. Other teams in that league cannot speak to protected players without the permission of the team that owns their rights.
The number of players on a protected list can fluctuate depending on the time of the year. During the season the list usually consists of the 23 to 25 players on the actual playing roster, while in the offseason the list may grow to include drafted players, tendered players and affiliate players. In the past, it was common for leagues to limit offseason protected lists to 30 or 40 players, but in recent years some leagues have allowed teams to protect as many as 70 players.
If you are a fringe player in a league or on a team, being "protected" isn't always for the best as it is always ideal to keep your options open. For players who are not guaranteed roster spots and are told they need to come to training camp and make the team, there might be other teams willing to provide more certainty that could be pursued if they aren't protected.
Again, the number of players a team can affiliate depends on the league. A team’s affiliate list often is comprised of younger players at either the 18U or 16U AAA level who may have been drafted or tendered but not ready to make the commitment to junior hockey or not developed enough to be placed on the team’s active roster. Affiliate players often are brought in to practice with the teams that own their rights and usually can be called up to play a limited number of regular-season games. Even when activated, these players do not count against a team’s in-season roster or protected limit.
These come in all sorts of names, shapes and sizes.
There are predraft camps, ID camps, developmental camps, open camps, futures camps, main camps and training camps. The time of year and number of players attending these camps are good indicators as to what type of camp actually is being held. These camps usually are operated by individual teams, but in recent years there have been more examples of multiple teams getting together to host camps in hopes of providing players with opportunities to be seen by more teams and organizations with opportunities to see more players.
These camps are different from league-run combines, which often are held early in the spring and scouted by all the teams in a given league in their quest to find potential players who might be good enough to make their teams and to fill their own various tryout camps.
In the United States, the Tier 2 junior leagues (NAHL, NCDC) often hold what are known as predraft camps. These camps tend to have fewer participants than open or main camps and include players recommended by a team’s scouts who may have the potential to be drafted, tendered or invited to main or training camp. Some of these camps may be open to random players who want to sign up as well.
U.S. Tier 1 and 2 junior teams also hold summer main camps. These camps tend to be much larger and usually include all protected and returning players, draft picks, tenders, invited players and often random players who sign up to fill available spots. Sometimes the drafted, tendered and returning players don’t attend until the others have skated for a couple days and the group has been cut down to a more manageable size.
Main camps usually consist primarily of games, although there are some smaller camps that include practices run by members of the coaching staff as well as off-ice testing and workouts. Some teams have been known to hold camps with up to 12 teams and as many as 200 players, while other teams prefer smaller camps with four teams that are comprised mostly of players the organization thinks have a legitimate chance to make the final roster.
These camps are promoted as an opportunity to make a team’s final roster, however the reality is that most of the team’s training camp roster is determined before the camps start, and there likely are only a very small number of final training-camp invites available to the players attending. Revenue from these camps is an important part of a tuition-free team’s annual operating budget, so filling them is important for most Tier 1 and Tier 2 organizations.
Players attending main camps should do their due diligence and be sure the team truly is interested in them and to determine how many players will be attending before spending the money to participate.
A team’s final training-camp roster, which usually numbers between 30 and 35 players, is frequently determined at main camp and announced there or shortly thereafter. Selected players attend training camp starting in late August or early September in hopes of making the final 23- or 25-player roster. Players do get cut during and after training camp – and sometimes after the season has started – and those players then must seek out new opportunities with other organizations.
Similar camps are held by Canadian junior teams, although they may be called developmental or open camps. Main camps in Canada tend to be smaller and limited to protected players who have a realistic shot of being on the final roster or who are in a team’s plans for the futures.
The bottom line is that the players who ultimately make a junior team’s final roster must go to training and prove to the coaches that they are good enough to play at that level. While being drafted, tendered or affiliated more than likely gives a player an advantage going into main camp, none of those scenario’s guarantees a player a spot on the final roster.
When a player shows up for main camp or training camp, no matter if the player is a draft pick or tender or what has been promised or discussed in the past, that player has perform to the level demanded and be good enough in the eyes of the coaching staff to advance to the next stage of the process.