The Best Youth Hockey Programs in the USA: The Best of The Best!

The Best Youth Hockey Programs in the USA: The Best of The Best!

Youth Hockey Programs

Ice hockey continues to be one of the most popular sports in the United States, and many players set their sights on playing in a professional league when they grow up. Youth hockey programs are the best way to set a child on the path to the professional league. Not all youth hockey programs are created equally, though, so aim for the programs that truly are the best.

The best youth hockey programs in the United States of America come from the top league, the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League. Top programs in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League include these teams:

  • Belle Tire
  • LA Jr. Kings
  • North Jersey Avalanche
  • Pittsburgh Penguins Elite
  • Colorado Thunderbirds

When it comes to professional hockey, players have to start when they are younger. Youth hockey programs range in levels based on age and are the best way to make it to the professional leagues. While their records may change from season to season, the following teams represent the best youth hockey programs in the United States.

Best Youth Hockey Programs in the USA

As we indicated at the beginning of this article, the best youth hockey programs in the United States participate in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League. This is not to say that other leagues or programs outside of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League are not excellent choices, but this particular league offers the best youth hockey programs overall.

Many of the teams in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League have some sort of affiliation with a nearby professional hockey program. A good number of these youth hockey programs have names that mirror their professional counterparts’ team names under the National Hockey League (NHL).

Tier 1 Elite Hockey League

As its name indicates, this league falls under the first tier of youth hockey. It is also classified as an AAA league because it has the highest performance level in youth hockey. Part of what makes this league an excellent choice is how it is spread out across the United States.

Since the teams are not centrally located in just one region, youth hockey players have the opportunity to travel around the country and play teams from different states. This can mean higher transportation costs and needs, but there are so many opportunities that come along the way.

The Tier 1 Elite Hockey League is often abbreviated as T1EHL when it is used in rankings and division names. There are currently ten divisions within the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League that cover different age levels of youth hockey.

Interestingly, the T1EHL still uses some of the old terminology for breaking down its levels. The T1EHL has its ten divisions spread throughout four main categories: midget, bantam, peewee, and squirt, but its division names follow the format of the new system that indicates ages more clearly.

Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Divisions

Note: The number and rankings of the teams of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, as discussed in this section, refer to statistics from the 2019-2020 season. The overall number of teams in each division fluctuates from year to year.

There are three midget divisions in the T1EHL:

  • Midget 18U AAA
  • Midget 16U
  • Midget 15U AAA.

Each of these divisions has 17 teams in total. With the divisions being labeled in the format of “T1EHL Midget 18U AAA” and such, you can see how the terms for levels of play and age are referred to in the old format as well as the updated terminology.

The league also has two bantam divisions:

  • T1EHL 05 AAA has 16 teams
  • T1EHL 06 AAA has a total of 14 teams.

There are also two peewee divisions, which are:

  • T1EHL 07 AAA has 16 teams
  • T1EHL 08 AAA has 14 teams

Finally, there are two squirt divisions in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League:

  • T1EHL 09 AAA has nine teams
  • T1EHL 10 AAA has three teams

The names of the divisions below the midget category are titled based on the birth year of the players; T1EHL 05 refers to players born in 2005, and so on.

Naturally, the divisions with more teams are harder to reach the top ranking, but the size of each division changes from season to season based on how many teams have enough players per age group.

Past Tier 1 Elite Hockey Division Rankings

Looking at the rankings from recent years offers a lot of insight into which youth hockey programs are consistently successful. We will first look at a brief breakdown of each season by division before discussing some common trends overall.

2019-2020 Tier 1 Elite Hockey Rankings

As the chart below shows, the LA Jr. Kings was the best youth hockey program overall, ranking at the top of four out of the ten divisions. The LA Jr. Kings are located in Los Angeles, California. This youth hockey program has teams in multiple tiers besides the Tier 1 Youth Hockey League Tier AAA.

There are LA Jr. Kings youth hockey teams in the AA, A, BB, and B tiers in addition to the AAA tier. This youth hockey program is affiliated with the National Hockey League organization Los Angeles Kings.

Division Name Number of Teams Top-Ranked Team
T1EHL Midget 18U AAA 17 Belle Tire 18U AAA
T1EHL Midget 16U AAA 17 LA Jr. Kings 16U AAA
T1EHL Midget 15U AAA 17 Colorado Thunderbirds 15U AAA
T1EHL 05 AAA 16 Belle Tire 05 AAA
T1EHL 06 AAA 14 LA Jr. Kings 06 AAA
T1EHL 07 AAA 16 LA Jr. Kings 07 AAA
T1EHL 08 AAA 14 LA Jr. Kings 08 AAA
T1EHL 09 AAA 9 Cleveland Barons 09 AAA
T1EHL 10 AAA 3 Dallas Stars Elite 10 AAA

2018-2019 Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Rankings

During the T1EHL 2018-2019 youth hockey season, the top teams in the rankings were not dominated the same way that the LA Jr. Kings held rankings in the 2019-2020 season. Only two youth hockey programs, the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and Belle Tire, ranked the highest in more than one division.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Elite organization is affiliated with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, which is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The youth hockey program boasts teams for girls and boys at the AAA level. The program is also partnered with Dick’s Sporting Goods and focuses on developing players’ skills on ice and in life.

Belle Tire has its program in Taylor, Michigan. The organization has numerous teams for girls and boys throughout several tiers of youth hockey. Several Belle Tire youth players have gone on to play in professional leagues.

Five members of Belle Tire’s 1996 National Champion team have made it to the NHL. Alumni from other teams with the program have also moved to the professional leagues.

Division Name Number of Teams Top-Ranked Team
T1EHL Midget 18U AAA 24 North Jersey Avalanche (Premier) 18U AAA
T1EHL Midget 16U AAA 24 Little Caesars 16U AAA
T1EHL Midget 15U AAA 22 Buffalo Jr. Sabres 15U AAA
T1EHL 04 AAA 18 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 04 AAA
T1EHL 05 AAA 18 Belle Tire 05 AAA
T1EHL 06 AAA 22 LA Jr. Kings 06 AAA
T1EHL 07 AAA 17 St. Louis Blues 07 AAA
T1EHL 08 AAA 13 Belle Tire 08 AAA
T1EHL 09 AAA 4 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 09 AAA

2017-2018 Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Rankings

For two seasons in a row (2017-18 and 2018-19), the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program has tied with another youth hockey program for ranking the highest in two divisions, with the other team being the Anaheim Jr. Ducks in this season.

Affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League, the Anaheim Jr. Ducks program is based in Anaheim, California. This youth hockey program is recognized by USA Hockey as a Model Club Association for its dedication to USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

Division Name Number of Teams Top-Ranked Team
T1EHL Midget 18U AAA 23 North Jersey Avalanche (Premier) 18U AAA
T1EHL Midget 16U AAA 23 Anaheim Jr. Ducks 16U AAA
T1EHL Midget 15U AAA 25 Buffalo Jr. Sabres 15U AAA
T1EHL 03 AAA 20 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 03 AAA
T1EHL 04 AAA 15 Colorado Thunderbirds 04 AAA
T1EHL 05 AAA 17 Belle Tire 05 AAA
T1EHL 06 AAA 14 Anaheim Jr. Ducks 06 AAA
T1EHL 07 AAA 17 Boston Advantage (Elite) 07 AAA
T1EHL 08 AAA 4 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 08 AAA

2016-2017 Tier 1 Elite Hockey League Rankings

In the 2016-2017 T1EHL season, the only program to rank the highest in more than one division was the North Jersey Avalanche. This youth hockey program is in Hackensack, New Jersey and is a renowned organization.

Many players for the North Jersey Avalanche go on to play in the top college divisions, and some players have also made it to professional hockey leagues. The North Jersey Avalanche, Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, and Buffalo Jr. Sabres are also part of a regional league; both the youth Penguins and Sabres teams have ranked at the top of their divisions in recent years.

Division Name Number of Teams Top-Ranked Team
T1EHL Midget 18U AAA 24 North Jersey Avalanche (National) 18U AAA
T1EHL Midget 16U AAA 24 North Jersey Avalanche (National) 16U AAA
T1EHL Midget 15U AAA 21 North Jersey Avalanche 15U AAA
T1EHL 02 AAA 21 Oakland Jr. Grizzles 02 AAA
T1EHL 03 AAA 13 Victory Honda 03 AAA
T1EHL 04 AAA 18 Colorado Thunderbirds 04 AAA
T1EHL 05 AAA 15 Anaheim Jr. Ducks 05 AAA
T1EHL 06 AAA 17 Chicago Fury 06 AAA
T1EHL 07 AAA 6 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 07 AAA

Youth Hockey Basics?

Although it may seem logical to think that youth hockey is the same as junior hockey, this is not actually the case. Youth hockey is its own distinct category that is separate from junior hockey and should not be confused as being the same.

Junior hockey refers to leagues that are for elite youth players between the ages of 16 to 20. Junior hockey programs are oriented more toward college-age hockey players. They are different from standard youth hockey that we discuss here.

The governing body for youth hockey in the United States is USA Hockey, which facilitates hockey at all ages and levels. USA Hockey licenses and registers teams across the country and provides regulations and rules for play. USA Hockey also sets the levels for each type of hockey, including youth hockey.

Levels of Youth Hockey Explained

Even if you have never had a child play youth hockey, you have likely heard young hockey players referred to as peewees or squirts. USA Hockey had traditionally used names for each level, but the organization changed the classifications in 2016.

Although the official level names have changed, many people still refer to the more well-known names in conversation. It is still helpful to know the common names for the levels while also knowing how the levels will officially be referenced for rankings and other documents.

Original Youth Hockey Levels

The previous levels did not expressly contain the ages that played in each level, so youth hockey players and their parents essentially had to memorize the levels in order.

  • Mini Mite: The youngest level of youth hockey was for kids aged 5 or 6.
  • Mite: This level was reserved for children aged 7 or 8.
  • Squirt: Children aged 9 or 10 were classified as squirts under the old system.
  • Peewee: The peewee level was for kids aged 11 or 12.
  • Bantam: This level of youth hockey was reserved for 13- or 14-year-olds.
  • Minor Midget: The first of the midget levels was for teenagers who were 15 or 16 as a form of high school junior varsity hockey.
  • Major Midget: The second midget level was a type of high school varsity hockey that was for teenagers who were between 15 and 18 years old.

Since the official name changes are so new, you can still refer to the levels by their old names without too much resulting confusion. Many coaches and other people who have been involved with youth hockey for a long time find it difficult to adjust to the new system.

Updated Youth Hockey Levels

The new classifications for youth hockey levels make it a lot easier to know what age group plays in each level. If you plan to look at updated statistics or rankings from USA Hockey, then you will need to know what the updated names are.

  • 8 or Under (8U): Mini mites and mites are now combined under the youngest level, which is for kids eight years and younger.
  • 10 or Under (10U): Children who are 9 or 10 now play in this division instead of the squirt level.
  • 12 or Under (12U): Peewee aged kids (11 or 12) are now classified as playing in the 12U.
  • 14 or Under (14U): This division is for youth hockey players who are 13 or 14.
  • 16 & Under (16U): The two midget divisions have changed and are no longer mixed in age. Teenagers who are 15 or 16 make up the 16U division.
  • 18 & Under (18U): The highest youth hockey division is no longer open to high school-aged kids overall, but only to those who are 17 or 18.

The levels for boys’ youth hockey are almost exactly the same for girls, but the oldest players are in the 19 or Under (19U), which is for girls who are between 17 and 19 years old.

Youth Hockey Leagues & Tiers

There are many different youth hockey leagues throughout the United States, some of which are nationwide, while others are more regional. Within each league for youth hockey, there are different categories that signal the level of performance.

Not every youth hockey league has the same number or type of levels. Still, there are general classifications that are universal. Many divisions are assigned letters, like AAA, AA, or A, from the highest performance level to the lowest of that tier. The same continues for B and C tiers.

Other youth hockey leagues are designated as tiers. Most tier classifications rank tier 1 as the highest, followed by 2 and 3.

Typically, AAA teams play other AAA teams, but there may be instances where teams of slightly different levels, like AAA and AA, play against each other instead. It depends on the region, league, and rules that govern the division. It is more common for teams of different tiers to play against each other in an area that does not have as many teams.

What Makes a Hockey Program Good?

Successful youth hockey programs are more than just those that consistently win big tournaments and score the most points within a division. Rankings do matter, but there are many other aspects that are important as well.

It is easy for kids to get caught up in the glory of wanting to play for teams that are big winners. Still, parents need to know how to recognize what makes a program actually suitable for their young players.

Visibility to Scouts

Not every child is able to play professional hockey, nor does every child want to. But for those who have both the talent and drive to actively try for professional or college leagues, a team must provide the opportunities for scouts to recruit the players.

Scouts can show up at any youth hockey game, but they typically focus most of their efforts on frequenting the top tiers instead of those that do not have as high of a reputation. Some areas of the United States simply do not have as many local scouts, but it does not matter if your child’s team travels extensively.

Another opportunity for youth hockey players to show their skills to potential recruiters comes in the form of tournaments or training camps. These are also good chances to meet other coaches if you and your child are looking for a team that is a better fit.

Coaching Beyond the Ice

A good youth hockey coach will be able to lead the team to success on and off the ice. Youth hockey can provide kids with crucial life skills. Youth hockey players spend a large portion of their time with their teammates and coaches. Thus, the coaches and teammates can have a lot of influence on your child.

Successful youth hockey coaches emphasize the importance of teamwork while still encouraging individual growth. Players need to learn how to work with and depend on others, but they also need to learn how to improve their personal skills.

It is also essential that a youth hockey coach makes connections that allow players to continue their performance, even if it means that the players have to move to a different team. Coaches need to be selfless enough to put their players ahead of personal ambitions.

Parents should also seek out a youth hockey program with coaches who are receptive to feedback and open communication. Being a parent to youth hockey players can be extremely stressful at times because it is such a huge commitment, but communicating with coaches should not be one of the stressors.

Track Record of Success

Naturally, a good youth hockey program also has a history of being successful. Programs that consistently rank high within divisions and leagues indicate that they know what they are doing. You can also look at the program’s history off the ice, including if the program has struggled to have enough players and other factors that could be impactful.

Another indicator of a successful youth hockey program is an organization’s alumni. Most youth hockey programs are eager to show a history of success by mentioning the professional careers of past players.

Top youth hockey programs will often be the first to let you know that they have had youth players go on to play at elite college or even professional leagues. The track record of past individual players can be a testament to the overall strength of a youth hockey program.

Right Situation for Your Family

An often-overlooked aspect of finding a good youth hockey program is making sure that you pick an organization that meets the needs of your family. A lot of factors go into making youth hockey work for a family. There are many considerations, like transportation, costs, time management, and location.

Sure, a youth hockey team that is at the top of a regional division might offer better technical skills for a child, but it is located over an hour away. Compare that team to one that is slightly less competitive in the division but is only thirty minutes away.

You have to take into account that life continues outside of youth hockey, and the time you spend driving back and forth from games or practices adds up a lot. Your child still needs to have time for outside activities, and parents need time of their own. Dedicating all that time just to have your child compete in a higher-ranked league can:

  • Take time away from a child’s homework
  • Interfere with a child’s sleep
  • Cause interruptions in school (to leave for games far away)
  • Leave parents with little time to relax
  • Complicate transportation schedules within the family

Ultimately, a big part of the decision for picking a youth hockey program is making sure that you find an organization that is best for your family’s situation.

Best of the Best: Youth Hockey Programs in the T1EHL

Although the teams that rank the highest in each division will fluctuate from year to year, the rankings from recent years show that there are some youth hockey organizations in the T1EHL that consistently perform well.

These youth hockey programs genuinely represent the best of the best; they are the best teams in the best youth hockey league. Many of the programs are affiliated with professional National Hockey League organizations and produce players who make a career out of hockey.

Youth Hockey Programs with Highest Division Rankings in Recent Years

From the 2016-2017 season through the 2019-2020 season, four of the T1EHL teams ranked the highest in five divisions overall:

  • Belle Tire
  • LA Jr. Kings
  • North Jersey Avalanche
  • Pittsburgh Penguins Elite

These youth hockey programs represent consistently successful teams that have a history of players eventually playing professional hockey. If you are genuinely looking for the absolute best youth hockey program in today’s game, these are the teams you want to go for.

In that same time period, two teams had the highest rankings in three divisions:

  • Colorado Thunderbirds
  • Anaheim Jr. Ducks.

With the Colorado Thunderbirds, in particular, the youth hockey program has been able to make the top ranking in three different seasons, which reflects long-term consistency. Although these two teams have two fewer division titles, they are still superb organizations.

Final Thoughts

When it is all said and done, the teams in the Tier 1 Youth Hockey League are the best youth hockey programs in the United States. These programs offer high visibility to scouts, successful seasons, and a history of players, making it to the professional leagues.

Sources:

https://www.purehockey.com/c/youth-hockey-levels-explained
https://myedgehockey.com/components-of-a-good-hockey-training-program/
https://cdn1.sportngin.com/attachments/document/0043/6170/19-20_Age_Chart.pdf#_ga=2.193135149.1009628309.1603224734-1862743890.1603224734
https://www.tier1elitehockeyleague.com/page/show/4283639-league
https://myhockeyrankings.com/league_info.php?l=10&y=2019
https://www.jrkingshockey.com/page/show/3187876-history
https://www.pittsburghpenguinselite.com/about
https://www.belletireaaahockey.com/alumni
https://www.icehousenj.com/north-jersey-avalanche