Junior Hockey: Too Many Options?

Junior hockey is a world of its own. To those who understand it and live it, it is the norm. To those outside of the hockey world, it is a strange idea that is difficult to make sense of. This world is also constantly changing. There has been an explosion of junior leagues in the past several years. The top junior leagues such as the USHL, NAHL, and USPHL Premier are leagues that produce a lot of NCAA Division I and top Division III players. The problem with junior hockey nowadays is that there have been so many leagues formed that almost anybody can play “junior hockey.” Junior hockey leagues used to be for high-level college-prospect players that needed a couple years to round out their game before playing in college. Now with the addition of so many leagues that talent pool has been watered down.

The breakdown of USA Junior hockey today is this: Tier 1 consists of one league: the United States Hockey League (USHL). Tier 2 Hockey is also just one league: The North American Hockey League (NAHL). Tier 3 Junior Hockey has seven leagues: the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL), the North American 3 Atlantic Hockey League (NA3AHL, the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League (RMJHL), The United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) – Premier Division, The United States Premier Hockey League – Elite Division, and the The United States Premier Hockey League – USP3HL Division. The display of leagues speaks for itself. There is one Tier 1 league, one Tier 2 league, and seven Tier 3 leagues. The question to be asked is: which of these Tier 3 Leagues are actually placing players in colleges?

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There are 146 college hockey teams (60 Division I, 7 Division II, and 79 Division III). There are 198 Junior Hockey Teams in the United States. As it is, there would not be enough room for each junior player to find a spot on a college roster. Then you consider other roads to college such as those who come straight from Europe, the ones who go straight from high school or prep school, and then the players who come from one of the ten Canadian Junior Hockey Leagues which contain a total of 132 teams.  Most people who play junior in Canada (not major junior, the CHL) are looking to play American college hockey. If you combine this with USA Junior Hockey you are looking at 330 junior teams with players competing for spots on 146 college hockey rosters.

Jeff Cox, the senior writer an editor of SBN College Nation, and a knowledgeable source on the subject, has opined about the money-making industry that lots of junior hockey leagues have become. To him, the biggest problem with junior hockey now is that it is not  about the players, but instead about the teams and leagues bringing in as much profit as possible. There is too much false information given from junior teams to players about how they can help their careers and where they can place their players next. The teams are trying to sell their product and collect nine or ten thousand dollars per player, rather than actually helping players achieve their goals of playing on college.

A league that is a large part of this problem, in Cox’s eyes, is the USPHL. They have three separate divisions in their league (Premier, Elite, and USP3). This many leagues and this amount of players dilutes the talent pool in each league, but allows the organization to bring in more money. At the premier level, according to Cox, there are four teams that have great coaches and well-run programs. These include the Jersey Hitmen, South Shore Kings, Boston Jr Bruins, and Islanders Hockey Club. These teams consistently place players on Division I and Division III rosters. In Cox’s eyes, these teams could beat many NAHL teams, and might have close games with bottom USHL teams, although the majority of the USHL is still a big step above the USPHL Premier League.  Cox said a solution to this problem might be to allow each USPHL organization to only field one team, so there is not three teams for each organization lowering the amount of talent on each team, especially at the Elite and USP3 level.

The EHL is another league that Cox believes has too many teams and not enough good hockey. Some programs do a good job sending players to Division III schools, but lots of players from the EHL, along with the USPHL Elite and USP3 divisions just end up playing club hockey. This begs the question: why would these players spend thousands of dollars for one to three years after high school to eventually play club hockey, when they could have made a club team right out of high school?

Cox believes the USHL is a great league and that any player given the opportunity should play there. The Tier 2 NAHL is also a solid league. The South Division which includes the Amarillo Bulls, Corpus Christi Ice Rays, Lone Star Brahmas, Odessa Jackalopes, Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, Topeka Roadrunners, Wenatchee Wild, and Wichita Falls Wildcats is the best division, and the league and has great players and solid competition every night. The rest of the league is fairly solid as well, with some good young talent not ready for the USHL, and older players who were later bloomers that will likely be the 21 year old freshman you see on college rosters.

Junior Hockey is still the best path to college hockey. Players just have to choose their league wisely and understand realistic goals. The USHL and NAHL produce a plethora of college commitments each year. The USPHL Premier league has teams that do so as well. But when you get to the EHL, and the lower USPHL levels those teams may produce some Division III players, but most of the guys along with players from the RMJHL and NA3HL are just spending extra money to play hockey at the club level in college.  Junior hockey is an experience that many hockey players enjoy. Players just need to understand what their goals are, and which leagues are going to help them so that families aren’t spending thousands of dollars to have kids play at a level in college they could have played in right out of high school.

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