Tier II Hockey
The North American Hockey League (NAHL) and the Western States Hockey League (WSHL) are the two most popular Tier II Junior hockey leagues in the US. The NAHL is older and more prominent than the WSHL but is it really the better Junior Hockey league between the two?
NAHL is by far the larger (with 26 teams competing, compared to the WSHL’s nine teams) and the more experienced Junior hockey league. But WSHL has made some impressive advances in recent years, bringing it on par with the NAHL. Given that, both the NAHL and the WSHL have their own strong points.
In this article, we will look at both the WSHL and the NAHL in detail. We will start with a brief history and overview of both the leagues and then draw a definitive comparison of the two in order to determine which one is the better league.
The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is the older of the two leagues we are comparing in this article. It was founded in 1975 and is one of the oldest junior hockey leagues in the US. It is a Tier II junior league and is currently sanctioned by USA Hockey. The league is headquartered in Addison, Texas.
When the NAHL was founded in 1975, it was a Midwest based league consisting of 6-12 teams. It was initially called the Great Lakes Junior Hockey league. By 1984, it had changed its name to the current North American Hockey League. In 2003, the NAHL merged with the American West Hockey League (defunct) to become a 19-team league.
There are currently 26 teams (divided into four divisions) competing in the NAHL. The teams compete in a 60-game regular season followed by the playoffs for the top teams in each division. The winners of the playoffs are awarded the Robertson Cup.
Since the league is sanctioned by USA Hockey Tier II, the teams competing in the NAHL do not charge players for participating in the league (unlike in the WSHL). The teams also provide players with all the necessary uniforms, team clothes, and equipment (such as sticks, helmets, pads, etc.).
The NAHL didn’t award any titles for the 2019-2020 season due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The current champions are the Aberdeen Wings, who won their first-ever Robertson Cup championship in 2019.
The Western States Hockey League (WSHL) is a junior ice hockey league that was founded in 1993 by Dr. Don Thorne. Until 2011, it was sanctioned by USA Hockey, but presently it is sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
After it was founded in 1993, the league in its first year consisted of six teams from Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, competing on a 30-game schedule. Back then, the teams competed as Tier III Junior B teams. After the league’s current commissioner Ron White took over in 1995, he has worked hard to improve the league’s success.
The team dropped its USA Hockey sanction in 2011 in favour of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). There are currently nine teams from the US and Canada competing in the league. The most recent winners (2019) are the El Paso Rhinos. El Paso Rhinos also represented the WSHL in the UHU National Championship in 2014, ultimately becoming the National champions.
From the 2015-16 season, the league started competing as a Tier II-level player league. Before this, only the North American Hockey League competed as a Tier II player league. The WSHL currently operates in the format of the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Junior ‘A’ status. This means that they charge player tuition in order to cover the travel expenses for the team.
The league didn’t award any titles in 2020 due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. The league has also announced that it will remain dormant for the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic.
Yes. The WSHL has really made some serious advancements in recent years. With the addition of some high-quality European players, the league teams started attracting American and Canadian talent as well. And in recent years, there are enough high-quality teams and players in the Western States Hockey League to rate it as Tier-II Hockey.
Joseph Kolodziej of the Junior Hockey News reported back in 2015 that there were already 8-9 Tier-II caliber teams in the WSHL. He also reported that there were almost 40 players at the time in the WSHL that could make it in any other Tier II league. Clearly, the WSHL has made significant improvements to its standards since its transformation in 2011.
Since its incredible transformation, the WSHL has also reportedly started attracting scouts from schools all across the country. One thing that makes scouting WSHL players incredibly tricky is the league’s geography. There are very few NCAA programs located near the teams in the leagues, which makes scouting a real challenge.
But regardless of this, scouts and even head coaches from some of the Division I NCAA programs have been reported attending WSHL league games in recent years.
The organization of the games is also on par with the standards of second-tier Hockey. The games are always run on time, and scheduling is done in such a way that the fixture isn’t unfair to any team. All in all, the future looks bright for the Western States Hockey League.
So now, for the most crucial question. Which of these two junior hockey leagues is better: WSHL or NAHL. As you might have already determined from the discussion above, there isn’t a clear answer to this question. There are a number of metrics to consider, and that is precisely what we will be doing in this final section of the article.
The North American Hockey League is clearly much more competitive than the Western States Hockey League. It is also much older and has a better standing in the world of junior league hockey than the WSHL. This means there will be a lot more scouting going on in the NAHL compared to the WSHL.
But being more low key has its advantages for the WSHL. It could be easier to get accepted into this league than in the NAHL, and that shouldn’t necessarily be a compromise. The WSHL is slowly but surely developing into a powerhouse of its own. It is getting a lot more attention now than it did ten years ago, and it doesn’t seem like this trend will stop anytime soon.
If player tuition is a factor you would like to consider, the NAHL is the better league. Since it is sanctioned under USA Hockey by rule, the teams are required to cover all of the player’s expenses. This includes not only the travel expenses but also the cost of team clothing and the equipment the players will be using when they play.
WSHL does not have this requirement, and players are required to pay for their participation. But suppose finances aren’t a big issue. In that case, this league could be perfect for a junior-hockey player who wants to get into a Tier II league with relative ease. The WSHL could be an ideal place to develop into a more formidable player.
The WSHL could be easier to get into compared to the NAHL. The NAHL has its advantages, such as being a more competitive league and also the financial support offered by the team. But the WSHL is more competitive now than it has ever been and is a worthy consideration for a junior-hockey player who wants to develop into a more polished player.
- Wikipedia: Western States Hockey League
- Wikipedia: North American Hockey League
- Junior Hockey News: WSHL Showcase – Is It Really Tier II Hockey Or Not – The Unbiased Truth
- Junior Hockey News: The Rise And Impact Of The WSHL
- El Paso Rhinos: Home Page
- Western States Hockey League: Home Page