Top Level Hockey
The exciting sport of hockey is celebrated worldwide, with a large majority of its fandom located in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Finland. It is an incredibly renowned and competitive sport, with new, young, and promising athletes being recruited to teams each season. While there are many tiers of ice hockey, one aspect to grasp is the difference between Elite and AAA hockey.
While AAA hockey is the highest level in the minor leagues of both the United States and Canada, Elite hockey refers to the highest professional level played on an international scale. Elite hockey players will travel internationally, while AAA players typically do not.
We’re here to help you learn more about the differences within your beloved sport. Whether you are an aspiring hockey player, have a child who is interested in entering the competitive world of ice hockey, or an avid fan who wants to brush up on traditional hockey classifications, this guide will help you discern the main differences between Elite hockey and AAA hockey.
While some might say that Elite and AAA ice hockey are precisely the same, this is not even close to the case.
Elite and AAA hockey teams both indeed boast a high level of skill in their players and their gameplay. However, there are four main differences between Elite and AAA hockey that differentiate them in very specific and important ways.
While AAA players are very skillful, they are not considered the most professional and highest-ranked players in the ice hockey world.
One massive difference between Elite and AAA hockey is that Elite players are often well known and highly sought after by many teams. They are considered the top players of ice hockey in the entire world.
Therefore, they are on more professional teams than those on AAA minor league teams, which are a level below Elite teams on the ice hockey hierarchy.
Elite hockey has the most extensive hockey viewership in the world.
The National Hockey League (NHL), an elite hockey league with teams in both Canada and the United States, has its season games averaging 417,000 viewers across three digital platforms nationwide.
These numbers do not take into consideration the dedicated fans attending the games in person.
Though sometimes major league professional teams, or Elite teams, will share their players with minor league teams, this does not usually go the other way around.
Professional minor league, or AAA players, will not spend their time between Elite and AAA teams.
Elite hockey teams tend to travel both nationally and internationally. In contrast, minor league AAA professional teams do not usually travel as far for their team’s ice hockey games.
Those are the primary differences, but let’s learn more about how they fit into the context of the sport and how it’s structured.
The popular sport of modern-day ice hockey is often thought to have come from games played outside during the winter seasons. These games, played with simple household items such as brooms, measuring sticks, and miscellaneous spherical objects, are said to have been brought to Canada from the United Kingdom.
Originating in England around the 18th century, hockey originally came from an ice game called Ice Polo, played over a frozen lake for as long as the cold winter lasted.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century and the early 19th century that the stick used in ice hockey developed its shape, with the long foot edge at the end to push a puck around the ice.
The location of the very first game of modern hockey, as we know it today, is a controversial argument.
Some say that it occurred in Europe when it was brought from the United Kingdom in the late 18th century.
Others believe that it happened in Montreal during 1875 when ice hockey was played in its first indoor stadium rink with a puck and a stick of similar shape to that which the hockey fans recognize today.
Another claim for the birthplace of Hockey comes from Windsor, Nova Scotia. This town also has the Birthplace of Hockey Museum.
By the end of the 18th century, hockey leagues started coming together in the form of different neighbourhood and regional amateur ice hockey groups.
In 1893, the Stanley Cup was created as a trophy for one of the most popular Canadian hockey teams of the time.
It was not until 1900 that any sort of professional hockey team was put together, accompanied by the Ligue Internationale de Hockey Sur Glace. The Ligue Internationale de Hockey Sur Glace was a Canadian organization that:
Helped create many of the hockey rules that are followed today
Helped hockey join the Olympics in 1920 when it was first played as an Olympic Sport.
Ice hockey is an incredibly popular game with viewership across the globe.
From France to Finland and Canada to Germany, ice hockey follows an exceptionally rigorous rule book. Understanding the nuances of the game can be difficult for newer fans and novices.
Ice hockey is most commonly played on an indoor ice hockey rink.
The sport is consistently played indoors because playing on an indoor sanctioned hockey rink means that the temperature and conditions of the rink are controlled. Therefore all gameplay will be fair and equal in terms of location and the ice on which it is played.
Which rules of ice hockey are played depends on two principal codes of ice hockey. The IIHF and the NHL determine these codes and play according to Canadian regulations.
The IIHF, or the International Ice Hockey Federation, has the same rules as the NHL, or the National Hockey League.
Unlike other professional sports with very large teams playing against each other, ice hockey is played with only six players per team on the ice at a time. There is one goalie, two defensemen, a right-winger, a left-winger and a center player.
Similar to American soccer, the puck cannot be held or grasped in any way.
On the other hand, the game also follows similar rules as American basketball in that the puck is not allowed to be kicked in any way.
Players holding hockey sticks must guide the puck toward the opposing team’s goal in a similar process to how players manage the ball in American Soccer. Instead of using their feet, however, the players use the stick, shaped similarly to a golf putter (except it’s much longer.)
When the puck enters the net of the other team, the scoring team gains a point, or goal, for their team.
Much of the excitement of hockey lies in the speedy skating done by its players and the heavy contact of the sport, which tends to mimic the intensity of aggressive American football.
Like many other sports, hockey operates on a tier system that attracts some of the most talented players from across the globe.
Though easy to understand from within the sport, its tier system is a complex and multi-layered network. Let’s take a look at how it is structured.
Before anyone goes pro, they must work hard and climb the ranks of the ice hockey world.
For children who start young, their skills are honed through a series of hierarchical ice hockey team levels that vary depending on where in the world they live.
In the United States, the youth hockey leagues that filter directly into the minor league and potentially, professional hockey, have the following titles and age group categories:
- Children’s Hockey, otherwise known at Mite, for ages eight years and younger.
- Children’s Hockey, otherwise known as Squirt, for ages 9 and 10 years.
- Children’s Hockey, otherwise known as Peewee, for ages 11 and 12 years.
- Pre-Teen Hockey, otherwise known as Bantam, for ages 13 and 14 years.
- Teen Hockey level AAA, otherwise known as Midget Minor, age 15 years.
- Teen Hockey, otherwise known as Junior Varsity High School Midget, ages 15 years and 16 years.
- Teen Hockey, otherwise known as Midget Major, ages 15 years through 18 years.
- Junior Hockey, ages 16 to 20 years.
There are many different top-level professional hockey teams globally, otherwise known as Elite ice hockey teams.
Elites are teams that are considered at the top of the hierarchy of professional hockey.
The many tiers of hockey, ending with Elite teams at the pinnacle of the hockey pyramid, are often classified as follows from lowest to highest:
- Child’s Minor Hockey
- High School Hockey
- Junior and Major Junior Hockey
- College Hockey
- International Play Hockey
- Minor League, or AAA Professional Hockey
- Major League, or Elite Professional Hockey
Canadian Ice Hockey is one of the most popular sports in the world.
The National Hockey League, otherwise known as the Ligue Nationale de Hockey to many French Canadians, is the most popular and renowned hockey league in the United States and Canada.
It is one of the oldest leagues in all of North America and the only one to award the world-renowned Stanley Cup to the winning champion professional hockey team of the season.
The National Hockey League in Canada is structured with its own hierarchy and its own executives and board of directors. It was founded in 1909 with its first official games occurring in Quebec.
The National Hockey League boasts seven of the best Elite professional Canadian teams separated into:
- Atlantic Divisions
- Pacific Divisions
- Central Divisions
- Metropolitan Divisions
These teams in these divisions include:
- Montreal Canadiens (Atlantic Division)
- Ottawa Senators (Atlantic Division)
- Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic Division)
- Winnipeg Jets (Central Division)
- Vancouver Canucks (Pacific Division)
- Calgary Flames (Pacific Division)
- Edmonton Oilers (Pacific Division)
Like Canada, many of the United States Elite hockey teams are also part of the NHL or the National Hockey League.
These teams comprise a grouping of some of the best ice hockey teams in the world, and they not only often play against each other, but they also play other Canadian teams in the National Hockey League, competing for the famed Stanley Cup.
Some of the Elite professional NHL teams based out of the United States are:
- Boston Bruins (Boston, Massachusetts - Atlantic Division)
- Buffalo Sabres (Buffalo, New York - Atlantic Division)
- Detroit Red Wings (Detroit, Michigan - Atlantic Division)
- Florida Panthers (Sunrise, Florida - Atlantic Division)
- Tampa Bay Lightning (Tampa, Florida - Atlantic Division)
- Carolina Hurricanes (Raleigh, North Carolina - Metropolitan Division)
- Columbus Blue Jackets (Columbus, Ohio - Metropolitan Division)
- New Jersey Devils (Newark, New Jersey - Metropolitan Division)
- New York Islanders (Uniondale, New York - Metropolitan Division)
- New York Rangers (New York City, New York - Metropolitan Division)
- Philadelphia Flyers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Metropolitan Division)
- Pittsburgh Penguins (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - Metropolitan Division)
- Washington Capitals (Washington, D.C. - Metropolitan Division)
- Chicago Blackhawks (Chicago, Illinois - Central Division)
- Colorado Avalanche (Denver, Colorado - Metropolitan Division)
- And many more
You can find an inclusive list of Canadian and U.S. teams, listed by division here.
The Minor Leagues of ice hockey are comprised of teams of hockey players who are not yet at the elite professional playing level.
These minor league teams often host slightly younger aged players who play in the minor leagues before turning to the elite professional clubs.
The professional minor leagues of ice hockey are also considered AAA hockey.
At the minor, or AAA level, leagues do not compete professionally with or against the highest-ranking level elite teams, but instead, play and compete in a AAA category all their own.
While the NHL is the most viewed elite professional hockey league in the world, there also exists a very popular minor hockey league.
The AHL, or the American Hockey League, is the most popular and well-known hockey minor league in the United States and Canada. Though this is the case for AAA or minor league hockey, there are also six other minor leagues active in North America today. They include:
- ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League)
- Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL)
- Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH)
- Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL)
- North American Hockey League (NAHL)
- Big 6 Hockey League
The United States has the most AAA minor league groups, and Canada has more major junior league teams for a few simple reasons.
American minor league teams move around the country often. They tend to travel from state to state and city to city.
However, the Canadian cities boast having most of the major junior teams, or teen and college teams, because they have great programs for aspiring professional hockey players.
These players go to the highly sought after major junior teams in Canada to practice and hone their skills to one day graduate to the AAA minor league, and ultimately to make it to the Elite professional teams of the NHL.
Though ice hockey is a sport developed and often played mostly by men, women’s ice hockey is also as monumental of a sport as men’s ice hockey.
Women’s ice hockey originated in 1916 when both Canadian and American women and their respective teams participated in an ice hockey event in Cleveland, Ohio.
By the early 1920s, women’s hockey took off and gave way to Seattle, Washington’s women’s hockey team, the Seattle Vamps.
In 1964, a woman named Nancy Schieffelin was invited by the Brown Bears men’s coach to play on their team.
It was the first time a woman had played Ivy League ice hockey, and it spurred what is now one of the most beloved ivy league women’s sports: women’s ice hockey.
It was not until 1997 that the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance came into being. This alliance allowed women’s college teams to form and paved the way for the WNHL, or the Women’s National Hockey league, which works opposite the Canadian Women’s Hockey League as an Elite professional team.
There are currently six major elite teams active with the Women’s National Hockey League in Canada and the United States. They include:
- Boston Pride (Boston, Massachusetts - NHL Partner: Boston Bruins)
- Buffalo Beauts (Amherst, New York)
- Connecticut Whale (Danbury, Connecticut)
- Metropolitan Riveters (Monmouth Junction, New Jersey)
- Minnesota Whitecaps (Saint Paul, Minnesota - NHL Partner: Minnesota Wild)
- Toronto Six (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Many hockey fans that are not well versed in the nuanced world of ice hockey and its complicated division and hierarchy system are unaware that there are two main types of hockey.
These are competitive ice hockey and non-competitive ice hockey.
Competitive ice hockey is the most commonly viewed form of hockey. It is the hockey that is watched on major sports networks worldwide and who tend to have the most talented and capable new players.
Competitive hockey creates challenges between teams throughout a hockey season, and in the National Hockey League, it ends with the battle for the coveted Stanley Cup.
Non-competitive hockey is considered recreational or intramural hockey. Even so, it can often produce some of the greatest hockey players.
Non- competitive hockey consists of:
- A House League
- Rostered Select
- League Select set of teams
Conversely, competitive hockey teams and leagues will have tryouts for those on non-competitive teams as a way to cross the bridge into competitive ice hockey.
Despite the many different leagues, teams, and classifications of ice hockey, one thing is sure: ice hockey is a beloved sport by its fans and an exciting sport for newcomers alike.
The game is full of risk, history, and skill, and will continue to grow and develop as it has done since its 18th-century roots.