MYHockey News

Navigating the Volatile World of U.S. Junior Hockey

NAHL Photo


By Scott Lowe –

Junior hockey in the United States never has been easy to figure out. As we kick off the 2023-24 junior seasons around North America this month, that hasn’t changed.

And speaking of change, it’s the constant changes and growth of the various leagues annually in the U.S. that make it nearly impossible for most hockey families to fully comprehend the structure of American junior hockey as well as the various pathways available to players who want to extend their careers beyond the youth and high-school levels.  

Pretty much every American junior league expands and has teams relocate each year, and this year is no different. Meanwhile, neither the largest junior league in the country nor the league that sends more players per team to the NCAA Division III level than any other is affiliated with USA Hockey.

On top of the growth and relocation, many of the leagues have different rules about how many import players they can have, how many age-out players they can roster, how many players they can protect and have on the active roster in and out of season and other technicalities that most of us don’t need – or want to – understand.

While the United States Hockey League (USHL), the only Tier 1 circuit in the United States, has remained more stable than the other leagues recently, the Tier 2 North American Hockey League (NAHL), which had 11 teams as recently as 2003, opens play this season with 32 member organizations spread across the country.

The NAHL didn’t even have an Eastern Division as recently as 2014, but this year the NAHL East boasts nine teams with the additions of the Rochester Jr. Americans and New Hampshire Mountain Kings. The East and South divisions are league’s largest, and the NAHL also added an expansion franchise in Colorado this season.

The only other Tier 2 league in the United States, the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), added an entire division this year with its Western expansion. Since its inception in 2017, the NCDC generally has fluctuated between 10 and 13 teams until this year. Despite the stability in numbers, teams either have been added or relocated just about every season, and this year the league has expanded with the addition of a six-team Mountain Division that has franchises in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. That brings the total of NCDC clubs to an all-time high 18.

The NCDC’s parent organization is the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL), which is the largest junior hockey organization in the United States. The USPHL, a Tier 3 “pay-to-play” league, has grown steadily since its first season in 2013 and now has nearly 100 teams playing at two different levels. The higher-level USPHL Premier boasts 61 teams from all over the country playing in nine divisions, while the lower USPHL Elite has 37 teams competing in six divisions.

Widely considered the top Tier 3 “pay-to-play” league in terms of its overall level of play, the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) also has expanded several times during the past five years and opens the 2023-24 campaign with 23 teams playing in four divisions from Maryland north to New Hampshire. The league has added member organizations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey over the past several years.

Then there is the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL), which is affiliated with the NAHL, and also is a Tier 3 “pay-to-play” league. It is the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier 3 junior circuit and seems to have a few teams that relocate annually. Like the NAHL, the league has expanded to the Eastern United States in recent years while also adding expansion teams in other regions. For the 2023-24 season, the NA3HL will have 34 teams competing in five divisions.

With the USPHL and EHL both leaving USA Hockey in the past six years, the USHL, NAHL and NA3HL are the only junior leagues sanctioned by the sport’s national governing body. Leagues playing under the USA Hockey umbrella are subject to rules and regulations mandated by the organization that cover areas such as size of rosters and protected lists, on-ice playing rules, and individual player rights, among others.

Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior leagues – including the USHL, NAHL and NCDC – are tuition-free leagues. Players in the USHL also have most of their living and equipment expenses covered, while NAHL and NCDC players generally pay for their housing and most of their equipment. All Tier 3 junior leagues are “pay to play.”

As the final days of summer wind down and autumn approaches, many North American junior hockey leagues already have begun play, with those that haven’t not gearing up for their opening nights and weekends.

Every September at MYHockey Rankings we celebrate the start of junior hockey in North America since pretty much every North American junior league will drop the puck on its 2023-24 season by the end of the month. As part of that celebration, we annually re-post and update this article, which initially was published in 2019 and turned out to be one of our most popular pieces.

There are significant changes across the U.S. junior hockey landscape every year, so this is always a great time to get everyone up to speed and help players and families understand what future pathways might be available to players who hope to play hockey beyond 18U and high school.


More Opportunities Than Ever

All of this means that as we prepare to drop the puck on the 2023-24 junior hockey season, there are more opportunities than ever for young hockey players across North America to continue their playing careers beyond the youth and high-school levels. But while more opportunities mean that more players can keep their hockey dreams alive for a least a little while longer, not every opportunity is one that will keep a player moving in the right direction if the end goal is playing NCAA college hockey.

With so many new junior leagues and teams popping up on what seems like a yearly basis, the landscape continues to get more cluttered and confusing, and the options can be overwhelming for players and their families. While USA Hockey does a good job of classifying its member leagues into the three-tier system already described, there are reputable leagues that operate outside the jurisdiction of USA Hockey and do a great job of developing players and moving them on to collegiate hockey.

And despite the efforts of USA Hockey and those other leagues, the United States Junior hockey landscape still tends to be confusing and very challenging to navigate for the average hockey family. This article focuses on the junior hockey structure in the United States, but it’s safe to say that there are more junior opportunities than ever in Canada as well, and that the pros and cons to having more opportunities are very similar in both countries.

No matter where you live, though, the decision to pursue junior hockey in hopes of potentially advancing to play the highest level of hockey possible is a family decision that should not be taken lightly. Many things should be considered when making this decision, including the player’s academic and athletic goals; the player’s talent and skill level; the player’s level of maturity; the playing opportunity being considered; the style and personality of the coach being considered; the quality and reputation of the program being considered; and the family’s financial situation.

As with most things in life, if an opportunity seems too good to be true, it probably is. And if a lot of promises about playing time and having a specific role on a team are being made, the situation should be approached with caution. With each new step up the hockey ladder of development comes a higher level of competition and more pressure on the players and coaches to produce and win.

“I see kids who are good hockey players; they are good enough and skilled enough to play at our level, but they just aren’t strong enough,” Boston Jr. Rangers EHL General Manager and Head Coach Rich DeCaprio said. “A skilled player needs to be able to be that type of player against our level of competition for us to compete and for him to get opportunities at higher levels. If he can’t be that player, and I have other players more suited to the other roles I need to fill, then I talk to him about playing on our {developmental} EHL Premier team. If he isn’t on board with that, then we have a whole different conversation, and I try to help him find a better situation or trade him to a team in our league that will give him a shot.”

No matter what a coach tells you in a recruiting pitch, his job is to win and develop players so that he can move as many kids as possible on to higher levels of junior hockey or college programs. Just because a player is told to expect having a key role prior to the season, or even though a player got drafted or tendered by a Tier 1 or Tier 2 team, no coach is going to stick with a player who proves to be incapable of competing effectively at a particular level for very long.

Also, as with most things in life, nothing in the junior hockey world is given or guaranteed. If you are being promised the world by a coach who may have seen you play only a handful of times, it is probably time to step back and take a good look at the situation while keeping in mind that most junior hockey programs operate as businesses and have many spots on more than one team to fill on an annual basis. At the Tier 3 "pay-to-play" level, team operating budgets often depend on the staff's ability to bring in full-paying customers.

“So many kids come to me and say, ‘I got invited to {a Tier 2} main camp and I made the all-star game at main camp,’” DeCaprio said. “Then I ask them to do the math. If that team didn’t draft or tender you, and the coach hasn’t been in touch with you throughout the spring and summer discussing a prominent role on the team, you’re not making that team. How many kids like you who made that all-star game will make the team? Maybe one out of the six or eight teams full of kids who attend camp. I usually have one of the top Tier 3 programs in the country. We send 10 to 15 kids on to play college hockey every year. Come play with me, and if you dominate, then we’ll see what the next step is.”

Coaches have a way of wording things very carefully so that they aren’t really promising a player anything, and young players tend to hear things the way that they want to hear them. The truth often lies somewhere in the middle, which makes it very important for players and families to perform their due diligence before making any final decision about where to play. Research, networking and asking questions are important in finding the right fit, and that means families often need to be educated on the process and the various opportunities available while also getting an honest assessment of the player’s ability and potential.

These can be difficult conversations as no one wants to be told that they aren’t good enough to play in the Tier 1 United States Hockey League or at an NCAA Division I school, but it is extremely important to understand from educated observers where a player realistically projects when making decisions about junior hockey. Too many players spend thousands of dollars attending Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior predraft camps, main camps, combines and tryouts when they should be focusing on finding the right fit at the right level to give them the best chance of advancing to the highest level they can achieve.

Numerous other players spend tens of thousands of dollars of their family’s money playing for “pay-to-play” Tier 3 junior teams that rarely send kids to higher levels of juniors or NCAA hockey. Players and parents often hear “junior hockey” and get handed a contract, which makes them feel wanted, so they sign it right away without an understanding of what it truly means for their hockey future.

“It’s hard to say what the appropriate level for any player to pursue is,” said former Tier 3 junior hockey coach and general manager Jon Lounsbury, who also coached at the NCAA Division I level and now is a professional skills instructor with the Adam Oates Sports Group. “Within reason, players should always shoot for the highest level, but being realistic is important. If you’re a middle-of-the-pack player on your AAA midget team, you might shoot for a good Tier 3 opportunity in hopes that you end up at the top of that pile and position yourself for a D3 NCAA offer. Don’t spend all your time, money and energy trying to play in the USHL or NAHL.”

Without a proper understanding of the current and ever-changing junior hockey structure in the United States and Canada, players and families will struggle to make the best decision. That is where the process starts, and this article is intended to lay out and explain that structure in hopes that more people in the youth hockey world will have a better grasp of what is available to young players in pursuit of their hockey dreams. And if it saves you a few bucks down the road, even better.


The Most Traveled Path to NCAA Hockey

Many parents are shocked to find out that their kids are likely going to have to play a year or two – or even three – of junior hockey after their youth or high school careers end if they hope to land one of the relatively few available spots on an NCAA hockey team. This goes for all levels of NCAA hockey – Division I, II or III. Depending on whose numbers you use, somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of all NCAA college hockey players played junior hockey first.

That means they likely played junior hockey after graduating from high school, a fact that is hard for many families to fully comprehend. These players take a year or two or three off from being full-time students to play hockey at a level that they hope will prepare them to play the sport they love and be a full-time college student at a school of their choice. 

Sure, there are physically mature players selected for the U.S. National Team Development Program or considered to be legitimate NHL draft prospects who skip juniors and head straight to the highest level of college hockey. And there are instances where top players with strong academic credentials will jump right from a New England prep school to a strong academic NCAA Division III hockey program. But the overwhelming number of NCAA college hockey players at all levels go the junior route.

Even most prep-school players are spending time playing juniors before college these days, and what about those super-young Division I commits you read about? Yes, they too are being told – and sometimes placed on teams – by their future college coaches. These coaches want their commits to play in high-level junior hockey leagues so they can develop as players and physically by competing against bigger, stronger and older opponents on a daily basis.

A player from my area who is a 2001 birthyear recently graduated from a strong New England prep school with outstanding academic credentials. He served as team captain and was president of his class. Despite only having one year of junior eligibility remaining, he was told by the NCAA Division III hockey programs he was interested in – and that were interested in him – that he needed to play a year of juniors before they would be able to commit to him. He did what they asked and received an offer from a D3 program that he accepted last winter. 

Why is hockey like this?

One theory is that because there were no NCAA rules against it, smaller Division I hockey schools decided years ago that the best way to compete against the bigger powerhouse programs was by bringing in older, more mature and physically stronger players from junior leagues. This created a domino effect as these teams became more competitive, with other coaches saying, “If they’re going to do it, we’re going to do it.” That philosophy ultimately filtered down to the Division II and III levels, where coaches decided it was best for them to wait on the older kids who don’t quite pan out at the Division I level.

These days, it’s common for players who hope to receive Division I offers to wait until July or August to see if anything pans out. The ones who don’t get offers end up scrambling to find Division III homes a month or less before the start of the fall semester, and there always seem to be D3 coaches eager to add those players to their rosters.

A few years back at a Tier 2 NCDC junior game at a New Hampshire rink, a Division III coach was asked if it mattered when a player got scratched at a game he was scouting. His reply: “To be honest, I’m not even looking at anyone who isn’t aging out this year at this point. If a kid has a year left and tells me that he’s definitely ready to go to school, I will take a look, but I don’t count on kids like that because they often will wait until the last minute and tell us they are going back to juniors for one more year.”

So, the reality is that at the Division II and III levels there are even fewer younger commits and traditional 18- and 19-year-old freshmen than at the highest level of NCAA hockey.

A 2016 study done by NeutralZone confirmed this, finding that a 72 percent of all D3 commits were age-outs and that 92 percent were in their final or second-to-last-years of junior hockey. At the D1 level, 70 percent of the commits were in their last or next-to-last year, with 33 percent of those being age-outs. It is important to understand that the majority of the remaining 30 percent who committed to Division I programs at younger ages were being told by their future coaches that they still needed to develop for a year or two – or longer – at the junior level.

Another player who trains with a group I personally work with in the summer committed to a top-10 NCAA Division I program. He still had two years of junior eligibility after committing several years previously and was a very high draft pick in the USHL,

He started playing juniors at age 16 and was planning on playing three years in the USHL before heading off to college. Well, the school he was committed to apparently wasn’t happy with his development and decommitted him. So he went back to play in the USHL for a fourth season with other D1 programs looking at him, worked very hard and had a great year that got him another Division I offer and ultimately drafted by an NHL team. 

Still another player from my area committed to a D1 school when he was playing 16U AAA hockey. An OHL and a USHL draft pick, he competed in the Tier 2 NCDC for three seasons and was prepared to enroll in college the following year but was told by his school that they wanted to see him continue to develop in a higher-level league. So, he was placed on a BCHL team for a fourth year of juniors in Canada.

Ultimately, because of COVID and being prohibited from crossing the border, he returned to the NCDC for a fourth season and was ready to enroll for the fall semester 2021. The school changed its mind and asked him to play a fifth year of juniors, so he decided to play for a top Division III program instead of going through another year of the junior grind. The program he chose turned out to be a Final Four team his freshman year, and even though he was a former D1 commit, he played very little and transferred to another Division III program last year.

A fourth player who currently is playing at the Division III level also committed to a Division I program as a 15U and subsequently was decommitted twice while playing three years of juniors and before finally finding a D1 home. He appeared in fewer than 10 games as a college freshman and ultimately transferred to a Division III program so that he could be a regular player on that team.

Junior hockey is not for the faint of heart. For most organizations it is a business. No matter who you are or how good you think you are, it is a long, winding, difficult road for most players.

Here is a closer look at the junior hockey structure in the United States:


Tier 1 – The USHL

There is only one USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier 1 junior league in the U.S., and that is the United States Hockey League (USHL). A league capable of competing with any under-20 circuit in North America, the USHL is comprised primarily of future high-end NCAA Division I players and potential NHL draft picks. A 2018 USA Hockey article stated that about 93 percent of all USHL players will end up playing at the D1 level. The others likely will take a stab at pro hockey either in North America or abroad.

“We consider the USHL a professional-development league at this point,” a college coach recently told me.

The USHL is one of two USA Hockey-sanctioned “tuition-free” junior leagues, but remember it is the only Tier 1 league. That means the players do not pay to play, and at the Tier 1 level all equipment and housing is paid for as well. The USHL currently features 16 teams playing in two divisions mostly scattered around the Midwest.

Youngstown is the eastern-most USHL franchise, with other clubs in places such as Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The U.S. National Team Development Program, based in Michigan, also enters a team in the USHL each year.

Players are selected to compete for open spots on USHL teams in a two-phase draft that takes place each June. Once drafted, a player is property of that USHL franchise until he is released or traded. A drafted player can play for another team in another league, but he can only play in the USHL for the team that drafted him until he is released or traded.

Next spring's USHL Phase I draft will only be for 2008 birth years, while Phase 2 will allow for any players with junior eligibility (2004-2008) to be selected. You can see that the USHL starts searching for players at very young ages, and the league is full of young Division I commits and players on track to play at that level or the NHL.

USHL teams also can “tender” a player, but they lose a first-round draft pick when they do that. A tender is an agreement signed by the player and team that makes the player that organization’s property in that league until he is traded or released.

“There aren’t many junior or AAA kids who come to our main camp that we don’t have some form of information about,” said Anthony Matarazzo, formerly the Director of Hockey with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL and now an NCAA Division III assistant coach. “Unfortunately, some of our draft picks don’t pan out, which is why we have a targeted approach to our main camp. Not just anyone can get in. We try to bring in players who we think can compete and some others to see how they compete above their age group and then monitor the ones we like the following season.”

If you are 17 or 18 years old and haven’t been contacted directly by a USHL coach, reaching that level is going to be very much a longshot – if not impossible. That’s okay; there are other high-level U.S. and Canadian junior leagues that send plenty of players on to NCAA hockey programs.

There are about 60 NCAA Division I hockey teams and only 16 USHL teams, so it’s much harder to play in the USHL than it is to play even at the DI level. That speaks volumes considering the thousands of junior hockey players around the world who would love to play Division I hockey.

Drafted and tendered players, as well as others from around North America and Europe, are invited by USHL teams to participate in summer “main camps” to compete for spots at training camp in early September. Upwards of 150 players between the ages of 16 and 20 pay a few hundred dollars to attend these selection camps, which ultimately help fund the yearly team budgets.

For younger players who hope to one day make it to the USHL or another higher-level junior league, these camps can be a great learning experience, a chance to see how they stack up against better and older players and an opportunity to catch a coach’s eye for the future. Older players attending USHL main camps face very much of an uphill battle considering that there will be returning players, drafted players, tendered players and coach-invited players all competing for 23 roster spots. The reality is that most of the roster slots are filled before main camps start, and there may be 150 or more others from around the world competing for maybe five or even fewer spots.

It’s important to understand that draft picks and tenders enter camp with a leg up on the other players when it comes to filling those available slots. That does not mean, however, that draft picks or tenders automatically will earn spots on the final roster. This is true at all levels of juniors. 

From the training camp group, a 30-man roster is chosen in early September, with the final 23-player roster due in by the end of September. Players released at the end of September are on their own to find another place to play and are often scooped up immediately by teams in the Tier 2 NAHL, which is the other USA Hockey-sanctioned “tuition-free” junior league, or the NCDC, a “tuition-free” Tier 2 league not sanctioned by USA Hockey.

Some of the USHL’s rules:

  • Teams must carry at least three 18U players on the active roster at all times.
  • Teams must carry at least two goaltenders on the active roster at all times.
  • Teams cannot carry more than five 20-year-olds (age-outs) at a time, which must be reduced to four by the third weekend of the season. Goalies do not count toward this limit.
  • Teams cannot carry more than four import (foreign) players at a time.
  • Teams may carry up to two Canadian import skaters that do not count toward the four-import limit.
  • Teams may carry one import goalie.


Tier 2 – The NAHL and NCDC

The NAHL is the second USA Hockey-sanctioned tuition-free junior league, and it is the only sanctioned Tier 2 circuit. Entering its seventh year of competition this month, the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) also is widely considered a Tier 2 league because it also is “tuition free,” holds a draft and offers tenders to players. The NCDC is owned and operated by the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) and is not sanctioned by USA Hockey.

While there is no tuition for NAHL and NCDC players, they usually are required to pay for some of their equipment, their housing and other personal expenses when not traveling with the team. Both leagues hold drafts to fill their rosters and have a designated number of tender agreements they can use to sign players. The NCDC draft is usually in mid-May, while the NAHL draft takes place early in June.

Players who are drafted or tendered by a team are that team’s property in that league until released or traded. Those players still can choose to play with other junior teams in other leagues. NAHL and NCDC teams hold pre-draft camps during the spring to which they bring in invited players and players who pay to attend in hopes of catching a coach or general manager’s eye and getting drafted or tendered.

Drafted players, tendered players and other invited or recruited players will attend summer “main camps,” with many of those in attendance paying several hundred dollars to participate in hopes of being selected for a team’s training-camp roster. These camps and the pre-draft camps help fund the Tier 2 programs’ yearly budgets. Most teams bring 30-35 players to training camp, with the NCDC cutting down to their final 23-man rosters early in September and the NAHL franchises doing the same by Oct. 1.  

Once again, players who do not make the final roster of a team are on their own to find another junior program to play for at a time when most clubs have chosen their "final rosters." This can lead to a lot of scrambling among players looking for homes and Tier 3 teams looking to upgrade. Unfortunately, this filters down, with many players who thought they had made a Tier 3 junior roster getting released, sent down to a lower-level team or traded within their league as room is cleared for the new arrivals from the higher-level programs.

"You need to separate yourself from your competition {to make a team in the NAHL}," said Byran Erickson, head coach and president of hockey operations for the NAHL's Northeast Generals. "Obviously you need to produce, but also block shots, cheer for your teammates, backcheck, ask good questions, do the little things. You need to be better than the kids we have watched over and over again. We know what they can be on their best day and on their worst day. When a player we don’t know comes in, he has to stand out every game. Not a few shifts, but do something to stand out on every single shift."

The NAHL now has 32 teams playing in four divisions across the United States from the Maine Nordiques in the Northeast, south to the Shreveport Mudbugs in Louisiana, west into Texas and New Mexico and then all the way up to North Dakota and Wisconsin in the Midwest. There also are three teams in Alaska.

The league has expanded into the Northeast in recent years and now has nine teams in its East Division with the recent additions of Maine, the Northeast Generals, Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks, Maryland Black Bears, New Hampshire Mountain Kings and Rochester Americans. Two years ago, the North Iowa Bulls were added, giving the league six teams in the Central Division, along with the Anchorage Wolverines in the Midwest Division and the Amarillo Wranglers in the South Division. The Wichita Falls franchise relocated to Oklahoma for the 2022-23 season, playing in the nine-team South Division as the Wranglers, and the Colorado Grit were added for the 2023-24 campaign along with New Hampshire and Rochester in the East.  

For the 2020-21 season, the NAHL produced about 280 NCAA Division I commitments, and it is generally assumed that about more than half of the players in the league will go on to play at the D1 level while the others will play for Division II or III programs. In addition to the D1 commits, the NAHL sent about 80 players to the D3 level in 2021. The NAHL also moves players on to the USHL. The league averages more than 300 NCAA hockey commitments every year. NAHL teams are allowed to list up to four imports on their rosters at one time.

The NCDC, which is the top tier of the USPHL, recently expanded to 18 teams with the addition it’s Mountain Division. The new division is comprised of the Ogden Mustangs, Utah Outliers, Idaho Falls Spud Kings, Pueblo Bulls, Rock Springs Grizzlies and Provo Predators.

Established to take advantage of the numerous NCAA Division I, II and III hockey programs within easy driving distance of its teams in the Northeast, the league now extends from Maine west to Utah and south into New Jersey.

It was hoped that establishing a tuition-free junior league within an easy drive for the majority of hockey-playing colleges in the country would persuade some of the top Division I prospects who were leaving the Northeast for the USHL and NAHL to stay home to play and create a highly competitive Division I prospect league. In an attempt to corral younger committed players, similar to the USHL, the NCDC limits the number of age-out players teams can have on their rosters. That number has fluctuated between six and nine players per team in recent years.

The league does have its share of D1 commits, although the number hasn’t quite panned out as planned. Several NCDC teams have strong relationships with Division I programs and are able to keep some of the younger D1 commits home to develop in their organizations. Programs such as the New Jersey Hitmen, New Jersey Rockets, Islanders Hockey Club and Junior Bruins might have had as many as a 12 to 15 Division I commits on their rosters in the past, so the level of play is high and more high-level talent from the East Coast is staying closer to home to play juniors every year. 

A handful of older players from the NCDC do end up making late Division I commitments each year after playing in the league, but NCDC teams still send the majority of their age-out players to Division II or III programs. Players who survive the rigors of playing in the NCDC most likely will play NCAA hockey if they choose to pursue that route, and some players from the NCDC move on to play in the NAHL each year. A few NCDC players also have advanced to play in the USHL.

Three years ago, a total of 166 college-committed players competed in the NCDC, with 84 of those committed to Division I programs and 82 slated to attend D3 schools. That Division I number was higher than usual because many American players could not cross the border to play in Canada because of COVID restrictions. Last year, 16 players committed directly to Division 1 programs while playing in the NCDC, while additional NCDC alumni also made D1 commitments.

College coaches and independent scouts compare the level of play in the NCDC favorably to the NAHL and a step above the top Tier 3 leagues. The best teams in the NCDC would likely be able to compete with most or all of the NAHL teams while the others likely would be competitive against many of the NAHL teams but struggle against the better teams in the league. Depending on the area of the country and the division, the NAHL is widely considered to be a little bit deeper and to offer a slightly higher level of play than the NCDC.

“The NCDC has continued to improve since its inception,” Connecticut Jr. Rangers NCDC General Manager Vinnie Montalbano said. “The parity in the league is as strong as ever. It is similar in terms of level of play to the NAHL, but speaking only for my team, we have been a little bit disappointed by the lack of D1 commitments. I would like to see the D1 programs give our league a little more respect.”

One concern about the NCDC has been the ability of the league to maintain its tuition-free status over a long period of time without any real ticket sales to speak of and a reliance on revenue streams such as sponsorships, lower-level and younger-player tuition fees and camp fees.

“I believe the NCDC is strong and will continue to work,” Montalbano said. “As a league, we continually have discussions on ways to improve, and I think we have a lot of great hockey people in these meetings, which will help the league moving forward.”

Both the NCDC and NAHL are highly competitive, with thousands of players from all over North America – and other countries – fighting for limited roster spots. The turnover in both leagues tends to be pretty high, meaning that players never stop having to prove themselves to earn their place in the lineup.

When one player is turned loose from a higher-level league like the USHL in the U.S. or the BCHL in Canada, he is likely to get at least a tryout opportunity with a Tier 2 team. NCDC teams also have USPHL Premier affiliates from which they can move players up and down, while NAHL teams have affiliations with North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) teams and working arrangements with some organizations in other Tier 3 leagues.


Tier 3 – Pay to Play

All Tier 3 junior hockey leagues in the United States are “pay to play.” Essentially this means that one fee, usually between $8,500 and $12,000, covers some a player’s equipment, the uniform and practice gear and all travel-related expenses. Sometimes this fee also includes housing, and sometimes housing is extra. No matter how you slice it, you are looking at a financial commitment well beyond $10,000 in most instances for a year of Tier 3 junior hockey.

With the number of Tier 3 teams in the United States exploding and growing on an annual basis, there are more opportunities to play junior hockey than ever before. But that means there are more questionable teams in terms of their financial backing, business practices and ability to successfully develop players and move them on to higher-level junior or college situations.

Thus, for players who are interested in playing at the Tier 3 level and who hope to advance to play NCAA hockey, it becomes imperative to find programs that are a good fit for their style and level of play, will give them plenty of playing time and have a history of advancing players to higher levels. Failure to do this can lead to tens of thousands of dollars being wasted that could have been used to help pay for college.

Deciding to go to college is never a bad decision, and with the quality of play continually improving in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the College Hockey Federation (AAU), there are plenty of opportunities to attend a respected institution that a player will love without spending the extra money on juniors and still get a great college hockey experience.

“I think it’s important for players to look at a program’s matriculation list,” said Lounsbury, former Walpole Express EHL coach and general manager. “If you want to play collegiately, it’s so important to see where the players from a particular program have moved on to. I also think that the annual number of roster transactions is a huge part of the decision-making process. Does the team stick with its players and develop them, or are they always adding and subtracting players in an attempt to find ways to win?”


Eastern Hockey League

There is no arguing that the EHL has sent a higher percentage of its players on to play at the NCAA Division II and III levels than any other Tier 3 league annually. The EHL positions itself as a D3 developmental league and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. While the league does produce the occasional D1 commit or NAHL draft pick, EHL coaches work hard to move their players on to the D3 level, and that effort is reflected in the results.

After expanding in recent years, the EHL is now comprised of 23 East Coast-based teams extending north from Maryland all the way to New Hampshire. The majority of those teams – 16 of them – is concentrated in New England, with the rest located between New York and Maryland. The EHL has averaged more than 175 NCAA commitments the past three years for an average of better than nine per team per year.

The EHL also has a lower-level, developmental Tier 3 affiliate league called the EHL Premier (EHLP), which allows younger players and players who haven’t been exposed to AAA-level club hockey but want to keep playing a place to develop with the possibility of getting called up during the season or moving up to the EHL the following year.

“We will take younger kids who still need to develop and give them an opportunity to play at the Premier level,” DeCaprio said. “Then we look to move them on to our league or the NAHL. So, we do that as well as moving kids on to Division III college programs.”

The EHL started awarding tender agreements to prospective players during the 2021-22 season. Those agreements bind a player to the EHL team they sign with until they are traded or released, but they are free to play with teams in other junior leagues. Prior to the 2022-23 the EHL broke away from USA Hockey, leaving the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) as the only Tier 3 league sanctioned by USA Hockey. 


United States Premier Hockey League 

A league that used to be primarily based in the Northeast but has expanded all over the country is the USPHL. The parent organization of the Tier 2 NCDC, the USPHL also has Tier 3 leagues called USPHL Premier and USPHL Elite.

There are 61 USPHL Premier teams playing in nine divisions following multiple recent expansions. Those 61 teams are located from Maine south to Florida; from the East Coast all the way across the country the country to Nevada, Washington and California; and throughout the Midwest from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan south to Illinois and Indiana.

Many of the 17 NCDC programs have Premier-level teams in their organizations that serve as direct affiliates, allowing players on those teams to practice and possibly play with the higher-level team to get a taste of Tier 2 hockey in hopes of eventually earning a permanent spot at that level. NCDC teams also are affiliated with other USPHL Premier programs around the country, with players from those teams getting call-up opportunities during the season and invitations to predraft and main camps with an opportunity to make the NCDC teams the following year.

Below the USPHL Premier Is the USPHL Elite, which serves as a developmental league for players who want to continue playing hockey but aren’t quite ready for the Premier level. USPHL Elite is a lower-level Tier 3 league consisting of 37 teams competing in six divisions. Generally, these are feeder teams and direct affiliates for the Premier clubs in the Florida and Southeast divisions as well as various Premier programs in New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

On an annual basis, about 125 players with ties to USPHL Premier and Elite programs from around the country commit to play NCAA Division III hockey. Nearly all of these players go from the Premier level directly to the D3 level. A few players will make the leap from the Elite level, while a handful of Elite players will move on to the Premier level every year and ultimately play for NCAA D3 programs.

The level of play in the USPHL can vary widely from program to program and division to division. If you look at the numbers a little more closely, the bulk of the NCAA commits are coming from teams in the Northeast that play most of their games within driving distance of Division III programs along with teams in the Midwest that are in close proximity to the numerous D3 programs in that region and the Southeast.

The Charlotte Rush of the Southeast Division sent 12 of its players on to NCAA hockey last to lead all USPHL That division of the USPHL Premier has become very strong and sends a high number of its players on to play NCAA Division III hockey, while the Florida teams seem to be sending more players to that level every year.

The USPHL Premier and Elite levels also do a great job of sending players on to play for ACHA and AAU collegiate club programs. Like the NCDC, the USPHL Premier and Elite are not sanctioned by USA Hockey, but they are considered reputable leagues that are professionally run and have solid track records.


North American Tier 3 Hockey League

The NA3HL is the only remaining USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier 3 circuit in the United States. It has a direct affiliation with the NAHL, with some owners controlling teams in both leagues and using the Tier 3 club to develop players for the future and as a place for players who didn’t quite make the parent club to play in case there is a need for an in-season call-up.

There are 34 NA3HL teams, which is more than the 29 in the NAHL, so not each club is a direct affiliate for a Tier 2 program. However, there are requirements for NAHL teams to tender a certain number of NA3HL players each season. Thirty-five NA3HL players received NAHL tenders during the 2020-21 season, and between 65 and 70 NA3HL players committed to NCAA Division III programs during each of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.  

There is a wide range in quality of play – and quality of organizations – throughout the NA3HL, which has teams scattered around the country, but is concentrated mostly in the upper Midwest. The league now has five divisions, with teams competing in New England and New York south to Georgia, west to Texas and north to Montana.

The teams with direct NAHL affiliations seem to have more success promoting players, although that is not always the case. As with any junior opportunity, it is imperative for players to do their homework when considering the NA3HL as an option.

Because of the location of the majority of NA3HL teams, it sends more players to the Division III NCAA programs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois than the Northeast-based leagues. And with the advent of the NAHL’s East Division, the NA3HL also has expanded to the East and South, with teams now located in New England, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Georgia. Some of the New York-based NA3HL organizations also move players on to play for NCAA D3 programs in upstate New York.


More articles like this...
Other articles of this type...