Best Junior League
Players with ambitions to play college or professional hockey are usually required to play junior hockey. In America, players can play in the Tier I league, the United States Hockey League, or Tier II, the North American Hockey League. But which league is better?
The USHL is considered better due to being a Tier I league that recruits many players who move on to Division I colleges and the NHL. Players in Tier I or II do not get paid to play but are often recruited by top colleges. However, the chances of recruitment are higher for the USHL than the NAHL.
In this article, we’re going to break down the details of the USHL and the NAHL. We’ll also discuss history, teams, championships, and rules.
Currently, the United States Hockey League is the best junior league, beating out the North American Hockey League and the junior leagues in Canada.
The biggest reason for the USHL being the best is the large number of players from the USHL who end up signing NHL (National Hockey League) deals to play professionally.
The USHL also has a higher record of players moving on to play for Division I and III colleges. When it comes to players, the USHL gets more young players full of talent.
Players who are passed over or age out of the USHL usually find a home with a team in the NAHL league, which allows older players.
However, the United States Hockey League is a Tier I team. At the same time, the North American Hockey League is a Tier II. Tier I is considered more advanced; therefore, you’d expect these teams to be more developed than those in a Tier II league.
The USHL, or United States Hockey League, is a Tier 1 amateur junior hockey league for players aged 16 to 21. USA Hockey governs this league.
Playing in the USHL does not prevent players from qualifying for NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) college hockey, meaning current or former USHL players can still play college hockey on scholarship.
This league is in the same junior hockey league as the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which has three separate member leagues. However, playing in the CHL makes players ineligible for playing in the NCAA because players receive payment.
Before the creation of the United States Hockey League, the league went by other names. In 1947, the American Amateur Hockey League was started. It consisted of five teams in and around Twin Cities, with another team in Rochester. It continued under this name until 1952.
In 1952, the league changed its name to the Central Hockey League for the 1952-1953 year. For this season, the five teams played in the last year of the American Amateur Hockey League (1951-1952).
In 1953, the league underwent another name change to become the Minnesota Hockey League. By this time, there were only two returning teams from the Central Hockey League. One new team joined the roster for three teams total in the 53-54 season. In the 54-55 season, the league consisted of four teams.
From 1955 to 1961, the league became the United States Central Hockey League. There were only three previous teams from the MHL during the beginning of this league’s five-year run. By the time the company ended in 61, they had five teams.
From 1961 to 1979, the United States Hockey League moved into senior ice hockey, which didn’t have an age restriction and operated as a semi-professional league. By the end of 1979, there were seven teams of junior and pro teams referred to as senior amateurs.
The 1979-1980 year marked the United States Hockey League’s return to an all-junior league, which it still is to this day.
The United States Hockey League consists of two conferences covering much of the Midwest States: Eastern and Western.
- Chicago Steel - Geneva, Illinois
- Green Bay Gamblers - Green Bay, Wisconsin
- Muskegon Lumberjacks - Muskegon, Michigan
- Youngstown Phantoms - Youngstown, Ohio
- Cedar Rapids RoughRiders - Cedar Rapids, Iowa
- Madison Capitols - Middleton, Wisconsin
- Dubuque Fighting Saints - Dubuque, Iowa
- USA Hockey National Team Development Program - Plymouth, Michigan
- Fargo Force - Fargo, North Dakota
- Sioux Falls Stampede - Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- Des Moines Buccaneers - Urbandale, Iowa
- Tri-City Storm - Kearney, Nebraska
- Omaha Lancers - Ralston, Nebraska
- Waterloo Black Hawks - Waterloo, Iowa
- Lincoln Stars - Lincoln, Nebraska
- Sioux City Musketeers - Sioux City, Iowa
Players in the USHL do not have to pay for their gear or equipment. The league provides it. Most games are played on weekends and usually have college and NHL scouts in the stands. This schedule allows the players to focus on their school or work.
Players can stay with local families if they are out of state, who receive a small stipend each month to help offset costs.
Statistics show that around 95% of players end up with a scholarship to a Division I (highest collegiate athletics) college.
There are strict rules for the United States Hockey League teams:
- No more than four over-age skaters per team (players who turn twenty in the first year of the season)
- Five import players maximum (three international, two Canadian)
- Non-American goaltenders are counted as two import people
Since the USHL is a Tier I team, meaning the highest level of junior hockey, it has a higher competition level. This league is comparable to the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in terms of competitiveness and skill.
The sixteen teams in the United States Hockey League play a season of 62 games with the goal of playing in the Clark Cup Playoffs, the only Tier I championship for the USHL.
This cup was named after Don Clark, the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association registrar. Clark was also awarded the NHL’s Lester Patrick Award for his dedication to hockey in the US.
The Clark Cup championship had happened every year since the 1979-1980 season, except for the 2019-2020 season, when the season was shut down early due to COVID-19.
Starting for the 2020 season, the USHL Clark Cup will be determined by a playoff bracket. Six teams from each conference will be eligible for the playoffs.
In this new format, the winner of the #3 team vs. #6 First round series for each conference moves forward. These winners will play the #2 seed. The winner of the #4 and #5 teams goes on to play the #1 pick.
This schedule is entirely different from the previous method, allowing the #1 and #2 picks from each conference to earn a First Round bye.
In this playoff, neither team would know who they would play until after the First Round. The lowest team would play the #1 pick, and the other First Round winner went against the #2 seed.
Another trophy up for grabs for the teams of the United States Hockey League is the Anderson Cup. This trophy is given to the team with the most points at the end of the season, not including the playoff games.
The Anderson Cup, named after Harold Anderson, has been distributed since 1973. Anderson played a large role in forming the Midwest Junior Hockey League (one of the former names of the USHL).
The trophy was awarded for 2019-2020, making it the only American junior hockey championship to be finished for the season due to the shutdowns.
The United States Hockey League occurs in two phases in the second week of May. Phase one is an eight-round draft that consists of U-17 players for the new season.
The second phase of the draft is open to all eligible players, not already part of a USHL team. If a player is undrafted, they can try out for any team.
Drafting continues until each team has 45 players, and teams may vary on how many players they pick. Although the teams start with 45 players, they have to limit the roster to 23, with 18 players kept on an affiliate list.
NAHL is the North American Hockey League, consisting of twenty-seven teams split among four divisions: the Central, South, East, and Midwest. It is among the top junior hockey leagues in the US. And it is sanctioned by USA Hockey.
Currently, the North American Hockey League is the only Tier II junior league in USA Hockey. Although it is a different Tier group than the USHL (United States Hockey League), NAHL is a competitive amateur junior hockey league. It gives the USHL a run for their money in terms of recruiting players.
This league is open to all players between the ages of 16 to 21. Playing in the North American Hockey League does not disqualify a player from participating in NCAA sports. Many players continue to play for colleges and can even advance to the NHL.
The North American Hockey League started in 1975 as a six to 12 team league in the Midwest. It was initially known as the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League. From 1975-1978, the club consisted of five teams.
In the 78-79 season, the roster added a new team for a total of six. But by 79-80, they were back down to five teams. However, in 1980-1981, there were just three teams in the league.
They expanded back to five teams by 81 and stayed that way through the Great Lakes’ league transfer to the North American Hockey League in 1984. In 85, there were only three teams, but by 88, they were up to eight teams.
By 2000, the NAHL was up to 10 teams. In 2003, they combined with the America West Hockey League to become a league consisting of 19 different teams.
Twenty years later, in 2020, the league now has a whopping 26 teams total spread throughout the United States.
The North American Hockey League has teams throughout the country, including Alaska, divided into four divisions.
- Aberdeen Wings - Westport, South Dakota
- St. Cloud Norsemen - St. Cloud, Minnesota
- Bismarck Bobcats - from Bismarck, ND (North Dakota)
- Minot Minotauros - from Minot, ND (North Dakota)
- Minnesota Wilderness - Cloquet, Minnesota
- Austin Bruins - Austin, Minnesota
- Northeast Generals - Attleboro, Massachusetts
- Johnstown Tomahawks - Johnstown, Pennsylvania
- Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks - from Danbury, CT (Connecticut)
- New Jersey Titans - Middletown, New Jersey
- Main Nordiques - Lewiston, Maine
- Jamestown Rebels - from Jamestown, NY (New York)
- Maryland Black Bears - from Odenton, MD (Maryland)
- Kansas City Scouts - Shawnee, Kansas
- Chippewa Steel - from Chippewa Falls, WI (Wisconsin)
- Minnesota Magicians - Richfield, Minnesota
- Janesville Jets - in Janesville, WI (Wisconsin)
- Springfield Jr. Blues - Springfield, Illinois
- Kenai River Brown Bears - from Soldotna, AL (Alaska)
- Fairbanks Ice Dogs - Fairbanks, Alaska
- Kansas City Scouts - Shawnee, Kansas
- Amarillo Bulls - in Amarillo, TX (Texas)
- El Paso Rhinos - in El Paso, Texas (Texas)
- Lone Star Brahmas - in North Richland Hills, TX (Texas)
- Corpus Christi IceRays - Corpus Christi, Texas
- Shreveport Mudbugs - from Shreveport, LA (Louisiana)
- Odessa Jackalopes - in Odessa, TX (Texas)
- Wichita Falls Warriors - in Wichita Falls, TX (Texas)
- New Mexico Ice Wolves - Albuquerque, New Mexico
While playing on Tier II teams, players do not face any costs to play. The league provides all equipment. Most games are scheduled for weekends to allow players to have regular schedules for school or work.
If players are staying away from home, they are placed with local families. The organization provides a small monthly stipend to the family to cover costs associated with the player’s stay.
Although the NAHL is competitive, the players are often not at the same competitive level as the USHL. Colleges do recruit from the NAHL but not as often as a Tier I team.
There are some differences between how the NAHL and the USHL handle the roster. There are no restrictions regarding overage players in the NAHL, which allows older players to stay on the team instead of ageing out.
However, NAHL does have to follow the terms of USA Hockey in regards to imported players. Each team is allowed no more than three non-American players.
The season for the NAHL consists of 60 games during the regular season. These games start in mid-September and go until early April.
The top teams in the NAHL playoffs move on to compete in the Robertson Cup Championship, the USA Tier II junior national playoff championships. This cup is the oldest trophy for junior hockey in the US.
The Robertson Cup is to pay respect to Chuck Robertson. Robertson was a trendsetter in junior hockey. He also owned the Paddock Pool Saints while they were the undefeated Robertson Cup Champions seven years straight from 76-83.
This championship has been played since 1976. But it was cancelled for the 2019-2020 season due to the global shutdown for the Coronavirus.
The North American Hockey League draft is open to players under the age of 21 by the last day of the year, not on a team roster.
Players on a team roster but that played less than ten regular-season games and/or playoff games that have not accepted a tender from an NAHL team before the draft are also eligible. A tender is when a player states their intentions to play for a specific NAHL team.
Like the USHL, the number of players a team can draft will vary, depending on the team’s roster before the draft. To figure out how many players a team can get, you subtract 30 from the current roster. Each team receives ten tenders (plus or minus trades).
Each roster should consist of veteran players and signed tenders. So if a team has 19 players total (12 returning and seven tenders), they can draft 11 new players.
Drafted players are not allowed to try out for a different NAHL team unless both teams have agreed. All drafted and tendered players can try out for any team in other leagues, except the NAHL. This applies to US and Canadian leagues.
Players not drafted can attend individual team open tryout camps, although this does not guarantee being selected. Tendered players are not allowed to participate in the NAHL draft.
By November 1, the roster will drop to 25 players. Due to new changes, the draft is now being done differently than in previous years. Currently, there is a Supplemental Draft and a regular NAHL Entry Draft.
The supplemental draft has 81 selections, and each of the 27 teams gets three picks. Each unit also gets an additional tender, which can be used after the Supplemental draft.
The Entry Draft happens after in-season evaluations and team tryout camps along with NAHL Combine. Teams have to turn in a protected list of tenders and veterans before the draft to determine their eligibility for new players.
Any player who has dreams of continuing to play ice hockey past high school needs to join a junior hockey league. There are leagues in the US and Canada. In the United States, players can play in the USHL, the highest competitive level, or the NAHL, which is a Tier II league that’s not as challenging.
Both leagues recruit to colleges and allow for eligibility for NCAA athletics. Signing with some Canadian associations can prevent players from playing in NCAA sports. Both the NAHL and the USHL have drafts open to players between the ages of 16 and 21, although the USHL is stricter on age. Older players usually end up in the NAHL.
- North American Hockey League: NAHL Draft FAQState of Hockey: USHL, NAHL Rated as Top Junior Hockey Leagues
- USHL: Clark Cup
- USHL: Anderson Cup
- USHL: USHL Announces Changes to Playoff Format
- Wikipedia: North American Hockey League
- Wikipedia: United States Hockey League
- Wikipedia: United States ice hockey structure