Professional Hockey Leagues
Hockey has a reputation as Canada’s most popular sport, but it also has become quite popular in the United States since it officially joined the NHL in 1924. In the last four years, the United States has introduced two new teams to the highest league in the sport, including the Vegas Knights in 2017 and the Seattle Kraken coming in 2021. But what are the different levels of professional hockey?
The two levels of professional hockey are the National Hockey League (NHL) and the minor professional hockey leagues, which includes leagues of varying skill levels. Between the NHL and other minor leagues, there are hundreds of ice hockey teams throughout the United States and Canada.
If you have been gaining interest in this exciting, fast-paced sport and want to learn more, you have come to the right place. This article will be a deep dive into the two levels of professional hockey in the United States and some interesting history behind them.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is North America’s highest level of professional hockey, attracting the most elite players from all over the world, particularly from our Canadian neighbours to the north. If you’re wondering about the probability of making it to the NHL, be sure to read our article on the percentage of youth players that make it to the big league.
Headquartered in New York City, there are 31 teams in the league, 24 of which are based in the United States and 7 of which are in Canada. NHL players make a handsome salary, ranging from $700,000 to almost $13 million, averaging approximately 3 million dollars per year. Although Canada has fewer teams, you may be interested in reading our article looking into how many NHL players are Canadien.
In the fall, at the end of every hockey season, the top teams in the league go on to battle on the ice for a chance at winning the Stanley Cup. Named after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley in 1892, the Cup has morphed into the most meaningful accomplishment in all of hockey.
Every player and coach on the winning team has the opportunity to inscribe their name onto the Cup, which weighs an impressive 34.5 pounds (15.8 kg) and stands nearly 3 feet (0.9 meters) tall. The Cup continues to grow in size, as the league continuously adds tiers to accommodate new winners.
The minor professional hockey leagues are the only other professional leagues in the United States. It comprises four leagues, each with a varying number of teams. However, not all leagues are created equally. Some leagues are ranked higher than others with significant salary differences and varying chances of being drafted to the NHL.
There are a couple of things to note before we dive into it. Like in youth hockey, professional hockey is ranked using an A, AA, or AAA system, with AAA being the highest. Also, be sure to read our article discussing the differences between Elite and AAA hockey.
Secondly, all of the leagues discussed in the following sections are only those based in the United States or have some crossover with the United States. Canada also has several minor professional leagues, which will not be discussed in this article.
Based in Springfield, Massachusetts, the American Hockey League (AHL) is the largest and most elite minor professional hockey league. The league has 31 teams, mostly based in the United States but a few in Canada as well. An AHL player can expect to make between $39,000 and $350,000 annually, with the potential to make much more if they reach the NHL level.
Most NHL players are drafted from this league, as it is the only AAA minor professional league in North America. Being part of an AHL team is exceptionally coveted for young players, especially those with dreams of the NHL, as it is the primary developmental league for the NHL.
The AHL has four divisions, including Atlantic, North, Central, and Pacific, each with approximately seven or eight teams. Each team has an NHL team with which they are affiliated.
Each year, all teams in the league compete for the Calder Cup. It was named after the NHL’s first president, Frank Calder, in 1937. Winning this award is the most coveted prize for every player, team, and coach.
The most recent winners were the Charlotte Checkers in the 2019 season. No team was awarded the Cup in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Every player and coach from the winning team has the honour of getting their name marked on the trophy along with previous years’ winners.
The East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) is a mid-level professional hockey league based in Princeton, New Jersey. There are a total of 26 teams in the league, spread throughout the United States. They are ranked as a AA league, which makes them one tier below the AHL, which was discussed in the previous section.
The ECHL is a development league for the AHL and occasionally sends players directly to the NHL. Since its inception in 1988, 676 players from the ECHL have gone on to play in the NHL. ECHL players’ salary can range quite a bit, earning as little as $470 per week or as much as $13,000 per week of the season.
Each year, teams from each division compete for the Kelly Cup, which is awarded to the playoff champions. The Cup was named after Patrick Kelly, the league commissioner for the first eight years of its existence and one of the league’s founders. Newfoundland is the most recent winner, beating Toledo in the finals in 2019.
Based in Huntersville, North Carolina, the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) was founded in 2004 with only nine teams. Nearly all of the teams are based in the southeastern United States, with some teams as far west as Illinois. Many teams have joined and left the league in the last sixteen years, leaving them with ten teams in the 2019-2020 season.
The SPHL is one of the lowest tiered leagues in professional hockey, ranked as a single-A. Each season, hundreds of players move on to play in the ECHL or other similar AA leagues, but few make it to the AHL or the NHL. In sixteen years of the league’s existence, only one player has ever made it to the NHL.
These players do not make a livable wage, with salaries ranging between $4,200 and $14,000 per year. At the end of every season, each team aims to win the President’s Cup. The top eight teams from the league go on to the playoffs.
Like the SPHL, the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL) is ranked as a single A league, the lowest in professional hockey. Developed in 2010, the FPHL has two divisions: Eastern and Western. In the most recent season, the league had seven teams across the midwestern, northeastern, and southern regions of the United States.
Players in the FPHL league have a moderate shot at moving on to the SPHL, ECHL, or AHL. Since the founding, the league has advanced over 500 players to a higher-ranked league. At the end of each season, the top four teams compete for the league’s highest award: the Commissioner’s Cup. The most recent winners were the Carolina Thunderbirds, followed up by the Elmira Enforcers.
Despite having only two different professional hockey levels, there are many nuances within them, particularly at the minor level. The National Hockey League is the ultimate goal for most aspiring professional hockey players. However, for those who do not make the cut, there are many options within the minor league, some even paying quite well.
Hockey is a game of tradition and history, with many leagues honouring influential players and coaches by naming exquisite trophies after them. Hopefully, you learned a thing or two about the different levels of professional hockey and a bit of the history behind it.
- AHL: Calder Cup Champions – Teams
- Wikipedia: American Hockey League
- Beyond the Glass Hockey: A Guide to the Unique NHL AHL Relationship
- Hierarchy Structure: Hockey League Hierarchy
- NHL: Stanley Cup Has Incredible History
- Hockey Answered: What is the Average Salary for a NHL Player?
- Career Trend: What Is the Minimum Salary in the AHL?
- ECHL: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- ECHL: Kelly Cup Champions
- SPHL: History
- SPHL: Player Development
- FPHL: About
- FPHL: Commissioner’s Cup