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Untangling the U.S. Junior Hockey Web

By Scott Lowe 

MYHockeyRankings.com

As we prepare to drop the puck on the 2019-20 junior hockey season, there are more opportunities than ever for young hockey players across North America to continue their playing careers beyond 18U and high school. 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 ultimate goal is playing NCAA college hockey.

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

This article focuses on the junior hockey landscape 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.

At the end of the day, no matter where you live, the decision to pursue junior hockey in hopes of potentially advancing to play the highest level of collegiate 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 role on the 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 to 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 Eastern Hockey League (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 {lower-level} 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 to college programs. Just because a player is told to expect having a key role in preseason, or even though a player got drafted or tendered by a 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 many teams to fill on an annual basis.

“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 that 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 that 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 USHL 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 reach

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 often hear “junior hockey” and get handed a contract that makes them feel wanted and 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, now an assistant with the Holy Cross NCAA Division I program. “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 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.

Sure, there are physically mature players selected for the U.S. National Team Development Program or considered 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 D3 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 at the junior level 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 – by their future college coaches to play in high-level junior hockey leagues so that they can develop as players and physically by competing against bigger, stronger and older opponents on a daily basis.

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, 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. Hence, everyone does it.

A few years back at an NCDC game in 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 III level 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.net 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-year 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. Please 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 – longer - at the junior level.

With that in mind, here is a look at the current 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 NCAA Division I players and potential NHL draft picks. A 2018 USA Hockey article stated that “something like 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.

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. It features 16 teams playing in two divisions mainly scattered around the Midwest. Youngstown is the eastern-most 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 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 in June. Once drafted, a player is property of that USHL franchise until he is released. 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.

These players, as well as others from around North America and Europe, are invited to participate in summer “main camps” that are highly attended to compete for spots at training camp in early September. Hundreds of 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, these camps can be a great learning experience and an opportunity to catch a coach’s eye for the future.

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 let go at the end of September are on their own to find somewhere to play and are often scooped up immediately by teams in the Tier 2 North American Hockey League (NAHL), which is the other USA Hockey-sanctioned “tuition free” junior league, or the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), a “tuition fee” 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 can carry only one import goalie at a time.
  • A team may carry up to two Canadian import skaters that do not count toward the four-import limit.
  • Any import goalie, including a Canadian goalie, counts as two players toward the four-player import limit.

 

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 third year of competition this month, the NCDC also is widely considered a Tier 2 league because it also is “tuition free,” holds a draft and offers tenders to players.

While there is no tuition for NAHL and NCDC players, they usually are required to pay their housing and other personal expenses when not traveling with the team. Both leagues hold drafts to fill their rosters and also have a designated number of tender agreements that they can use to sign players. The NCDC draft is usually in late 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. Those players still can choose to play with other junior teams in other leagues. NAHL and NCDC teams hold “predraft” 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. Similar to the USHL, these camps and the predraft 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 October 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 announced 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 Tier 2 programs.

The NAHL has 26 teams playing in four divisions all across the United States from the first-year 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 in the Midwest. There also are two teams in Alaska. The league has expanded into the Northeast in recent years and now has seven teams in its East Division with the additions of Maine, the Northeast Generals and the Maryland Black Bears over the past three years.

For the 2019-20 season, the NAHL produced about 80 NCAA Division I commitments, and it is generally assumed that about half the league will go on to play at the D1 level and half will play Division III. The league also moves players on to the USHL. 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 United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL), expanded to 13 teams this year with the addition of the Twin City Thunder in Maine. Established to take advantage of the numerous NCAA Division I, II and III hockey programs in close proximity to its teams in the Northeast, the league extends from Maine west to Rochester, N.Y., and south into New Jersey.

It was hoped that establishing a “tuition free” junior league within driving distance of the majority of hockey-playing colleges in the country would help persuade some of the top Division I prospects who were leaving the area for the USHL and NAHL to stay home to play and create a highly competitive Division I prospect league. In hopes of establishing a model similar to the USHL, the NCDC limits its teams to having six 20-year-old age-out players on their rosters (1999 birthyears for this season).

The league does have its share of D1 commits, although it hasn’t quite played out as planned. Several NCDC teams have strong relationships with Division I programs and are able to keep some of the younger D1 commits in the area to develop in their organizations. Programs such as the Junior Bruins, New Jersey Hitmen and Islanders Hockey Club might have as many as a dozen Division I commits on their rosters, 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.

Other older players from around the NCDC do end up making Division I commitments while playing in the league, but the majority of the teams in the NCDC still send their players to Division III programs. Still, players who survive in the NCDC will most likely play NCAA hockey if they choose to pursue that route. This past season, the NCDC had more than 60 players commit to D3 college programs and about 40 who committed or had already committed to D1 schools.

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.

“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 were a 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 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 players from all over North America – and other countries – fighting for roster spots. The turnover in both leagues tends to be pretty high, meaning that players never stop having to prove themselves and 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 Eastern Hockey League (EHL) organizations.

The Western States Hockey League (WSHL) has promoted itself as a Tier 2 league, but it also is not sanctioned by USA Hockey, is not “tuition free.” Its NCAA college commitments are limited to D3 programs and lag well behind the top Tier 3 leagues such as the Eastern Hockey League and USPHL Premier.

 

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 $8,000 and $12,000, covers some of the 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 beyond $10,000 in most instances for a year of Tier 3 junior hockey when all is said and done.

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 teams that are questionable in terms of their financial backing, business practices and ability to actually develop players and move them on to higher-level junior or college situations.

Thus, for players who are capable of playing at the Tier 3 level and want 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 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 gone toward 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, there are plenty of opportunities to attend a respected school 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?”

There is no arguing that the EHL has sent more of its players on to play at the NCAA Division II and III levels than any other league – Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3. 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, EHL coaches work extremely hard to move their players on to the D3 level, and that effort is reflected in the results.

After expanding into New Jersey Maryland and North Carolina last year and adding some teams in New England the past several seasons, the EHL is now comprised of 19 teams extending north all the way into Vermont. The majority of those teams – 12 of them – are concentrated in New England, with four teams located in the Philadelphia-New Jersey Corridor. More than 130 EHL players committed to NCAA Division III programs during the 2018-19 season.

The EHL also has a lower-level, developmental Tier 3 affiliate league called the EHL Premier (EHLP) that 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 the NAHL. So we do that as well as moving kids on to Division III college programs.”

A league that used to be primarily based in the Northeast, but has expanded all over the country is the USPHL. The parent organization for the Tier 2 NCDC, the USPHL also has Tier 3 leagues called USPHL Premier and USPHL Elite. There are 52 USPHL Premier teams playing in eight divisions from Maine to Florida and New York to Indiana and Minnesota.

All 13 NCDC teams 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 mandatory call-up opportunities during the season and invitations to predraft and main camps with a chance 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. Nearly 100 players with ties to USPHL Premier and Elite programs from around the country committed to play NCAA Division III hockey for the upcoming season. Keep in mind that while this is a large number, there are more than 50 USPHL Premier teams in the United States.

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 and from teams in the Midwest that are in close proximity to the numerous D3 programs in that region.

The good news is that the USPHL Premier teams in other areas of the country are moving more and more kids on to NCAA hockey programs each year and do a great job of pushing kids to higher-level junior programs or other USPHL organizations that do get kids college opportunities. And programs in non-traditional markets such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida are building reputations as some of the top Tier 3 organizations in the country and sending pretty much all of their players off to play at the NCAA D3 level or for reputable collegiate club-level programs.  

Like the NCDC, the USPHL Premier and Elite are not sanctioned by USA Hockey, but they are considered reputable leagues that are well run and have solid track records.

The NA3HL 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 more NA3HL teams than NAHL teams, so not each club is a direct affiliate for a Tier 2 program, but there are requirements for NAHL teams to tender a certain number of NA3HL players each season. Twenty-six players NA3HL players received NAHL tenders for the 2018-19 season and about 70 NA3HL players committed to NCAA Division III schools for 2019-20.

There is a wide range in quality of play – and quality of organizations – throughout the NA3HL, which has 35 teams scattered around the country, but is concentrated mostly in the Midwest. 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 looking at a NA3HL program.

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 located in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Some of the New York-based NA3HL organizations also do a pretty good job moving players on to play for D3 programs in upstate New York.

As mentioned previously, the WSHL is another junior league that has positioned itself as a Tier 2 league that operates more like a Tier 3 “pay-to-play” league. It is sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and in 2018-19 had 23 teams competing in five divisions. Teams are located from Texas west through the Southwest into California, north through Utah, Oregon and Washington and into Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada. 

The WSHL sends a large number of players to ACHA college programs and fewer players to NCAA Division III programs than the Tier 3 leagues mentioned above. The league had about 20 NCAA D3 commitments during the 2018-19 season.

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