What Is the Highest Level of Junior Hockey?

What Is the Highest Level of Junior Hockey?

Junior Hockey Levels

Hockey has a long history in the US and Canada, and if you’re considering joining the sport that has received international recognition for so long, the American Junior Ice Hockey could be your best pick. However, before you get your hopes high, there are steps you should know about. We know them as the levels that help you climb the ladder and reach your NCAA goals, but what is the highest level?

The highest level of junior hockey is Tier I under the United States Hockey League (USHL). It’s currently at the top of the tier system, just above the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and Tier III. For years, USHL has been attracting talent from all over the country and the rest of the world.

You’ve seen your beloved kids make their lives better by doing what they love the most, and through your support, they’ve grown into pure talent. This article will highlight the various junior hockey levels with every league’s constituents and the basic requirements for a chance to enter. Make sure you capture every piece to understand how tiers work to make one of the world’s most developmental amateur hockey leagues.

The Tier System

The tier system in American Ice Hockey is quite similar to the Canadian system. For instance, one level stands on top of the other in a hierarchy. The players at the topmost level are most likely to grow into the players you see on the NCAA hockey teams. You’ll also find many American-based teams playing in the Canadian Hockey League and the Junior A Program.

Despite all the similarities and the historical co-operation between the two systems, there are a few differences to help you understand what goes on from the American standpoint. The American Hockey structure consists of three levels known as tiers; Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III. All the tiers are sanctioned and monitored by USA Hockey to ensure that they follow the procedures.

Each Tier has a certain number of teams allowed to participate per season. Still, each team player must meet the age bracket defined by the USA Hockey rules. USA Hockey also spells out how the teams should select their players, where they’re allowed to import from, and the methods of dispute resolution in case any disagreements come up. The entire selection process is governed by a set of rules in the interest of fair play.

Tier I Level: The United States Hockey League (USHL)

USHL occupies the top position in junior ice hockey in the US, and it was founded in 1947. However, it started as a semi-professional league in 1961. Between 1979 and 1980, USHL became an amateur league. Currently, it is the only league in Tier I in the United States Hockey Leagues. Only 16 teams participate and compete for the Clark Cup trophy every year at the end of the season.

Most of these teams are located in the Midwest, some in South and North Dakota, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and others in Nebraska. Out of the 16 slots for USHL teams, there’s room for the entire US. The National Team Development program can add a team every year. To participate, you must be a junior player aged 16-21.

The USHL is strictly meant for junior players, so age is a factor that determines your eligibility. Although most people see it as the best junior league globally, it’s considered an amateur league.

We know that’s true because if you look at the number of talented players in D1 and the NHL, you’ll find that many of them had a history in the USHL. A season ago, it was ranked as the top tier league based on the NHL draft results, as most of the NHL signings came from the USHL.

Now that you know what makes the USHL an excellent option to consider joining let’s get into the selection process.

USHL Selection: How Will You Get Into the USHL?

Making it to the USHL calls for hard work and determination. Sure, there are many ways to enter the league, but you won’t make it far without hard work and determination. It’s wise to take things at your own pace. Things work differently for each player. If you take your time to develop through the process, you’ll stand a better chance.

Fortunately, getting into the USHL might not be as hard as it seems. The process is simple and straightforward, depending on which path you want to follow and where you are.

Some people start by attending the USHL Combines, a series of educational events meant to search for upcoming talent. Invitees test their skills against one another in front of the 16 USHL teams’ scouts. It’s an excellent opportunity to attract the attention of an important person in the league.

Every year USHL Annual Combines dates are rolled, and you can always check them to try your luck. If you’re not successful, you can try the next time as long as you are still within the required age bracket.

Another place to try your luck with the USHL is their annual summer training camps. Players from Europe and North America are welcome to compete in this training in September. If you’re aged between 16 and 20, you’re welcome to make your best attempt during the month of September. All participants must pay a few bucks to join, injecting some funds into the team’s annual budgets.

In exchange for your participation, you get a good learning experience to help launch your ice hockey career. The better you become, the higher the chances of attracting a selection from your dream team.

At the end of the training camp in September, your fate will be decided, and you will know if you were selected or not. Some players who show commitment and improvement may be chosen earlier than you think. In the first few days, 30 men (players) are picked and monitored throughout the month.

This tells you to work hard to be among that group. If you do your best, you may end up with the 23 finalists chosen at the end of the month. You may also get an invitation from the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and other leagues.

The Selection Phases

Every year in May, players are selected to fill the available spots in the USHL. The process takes place in a two-phase draft. It may sound different, but a 2-phase draft is easy to understand. Here’s how it works:

The first phase is a 10-round process that sees potential players’ selected. These players are not yet ready to play in the USHL, but they’ve shown great potential for the future. They’ll continue to nurture their skill at the Tier I level or choose other levels as they await Phase II.

In Phase II, things get more interesting. The teams select players of different ages, as long as they fall within the age bracket. Unlike Phase I, Phase II doesn’t have a fixed number of rounds. The selection goes on until all teams attain a maximum of 45 players on their protected lists.

The teams can select from the shortlisted players in Phase I, tendered players, and affiliated players. However, you will not be chosen by any other team in the league if you’re already on a USHL team protected list. Remember, once you’re selected to play in the USHL competitions, you become an asset to the team until they trade or release you.

Unlike the Tier III leagues, the USHL comes as a relief to aspiring players since they’re not supposed to pay for tuition. Most of the team’s expenses, such as playing expenses, travel, and equipment, are covered for them.

As an aspiring coach or player, you must be familiar with most of the games’ rules. Fighting is unacceptable, just like any other league. Apart from that, the USHL strictly upholds the following:

  • No teams should import more than four foreign players at a time.
  • Every team should carry a minimum of three 18U players on their active rosters.
  • Age-outs (players aged 20) should not be more than 5 in any team. Once five of them are selected, they should be reduced to 4 by the third weekend of the season. This rule only applies to players, not goalies.
  • There must be at least two goaltenders on the active roster at all times.
  • The team is allowed to carry only one import goalie at a time.

For more details about the USHL Junior League rules, please visit the USA Hockey official website to read about the updated Junior Tier I, II, and III guidelines and forms. These guidelines explain international transfers and official game reports.

Other Tier leagues are as important as the USHL because they provide competitive opportunities for players. Currently, there are eight leagues recognized by USA Hockey that participate in the Tier II level.

Tier II Level: North American Hockey League (NAHL)

The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is the only league according to the USA Hockey Tier II level. It has a lot in common with the USHL. For instance, the age limit is the same, most of the cost burden falls upon the team, and the selection process is quite similar to the USHL. No matter how you describe it, the NAHL is considered an amateur league open to juniors aged between 16-20 years.

One of the most overlooked factors that differentiate USHL from NAHL is the quality of play and the players’ experience level. Unlike the USHL, the North American Hockey League attracts older and more mature juniors to play in its teams.

These players may have had prior experience in other Tiers or unsanctioned leagues. In terms of quality, one would say that the USHL offers better, although the NAHL isn’t far behind.

Founded in 1975, the NAHL used to have 25 teams playing in 4 divisions, but today, the numbers have increased to 27. Most of the teams come from 17 states in North America-hence the name. According to regulations, each team is entitled to a roster of 25 players.

The draft process usually takes place in June. Typically, each team would draft players according to their needs following the scouting carried out throughout the season.

In case you don’t get drafted, you can contact any NAHL team and ask them about their tryouts. This will increase your chances of earning a roster spot. Alternatively, you could try out your luck in other leagues. Remember, one reason why players fail to get drafted is the lack of hard work and determination. You need to impress the coaches to get the best chance of joining a team.

Players begin their journey with little experience and lesser opportunities. Still, they attract NCAA opportunities and much more along the way.

Getting started will not be restricted by limited funds since you don’t have to pay to play. However, there’s only one catch. You’ll have to pay $300 per month to live with a billet family. Most players leave their homes and families to participate in the NAHL seasons.

Since you’ll be away for some time, you’ll need food, accommodation, and a decent space for your studies. A billet family will provide all of these things. The 300 dollars you pay is given to the billet family to pay for your living expenses. They will not cover your personal expenses. Your team will find you a good billet family, whom they’ve interviewed to ensure that your stay will be comfortable.

The team will cater for other expenses such as travel costs for games and tournaments, ice time for practice and games, and equipment, such as gloves, pants, jersey, helmet, etc. All you need to do is get drafted into one of the NAHL leagues and work your way to improve your skills and impress your coach.

If you don’t want to scramble for a position in other leagues, you need to up your game. The NAHL is a highly competitive league.

Tier III Level

Tier III is nothing like the USHL or NAHL. The teams and leagues in tier III level are all the teams and leagues that are not part of Tier I or II. Examples include the Eastern Hockey League, NA3EHL, NA3EHL Independents, the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, Northern Pacific, the US Premier, and Rocky Mountain. Each team is entitled to a roster of 25 players.

The most significant difference between Tier III, USHL, and the NAHL is the cost implications on the teams and the players. For those aspiring to play in Tier III, you’ll have to pay an amount between $8000-$12000.

Tier III upholds a pay-to-play system in which players are supposed to pay a fixed amount to play for their teams. This fee mostly covers the equipment, ice time, travel costs, and housing expenses. It may increase depending on the team’s budget and your personal expenses.

Despite the player’s burden, Tier III has recorded significant growth in the number of teams over the past few years. Such growth signifies that the leagues are getting more competitive as they gain popularity, which presents more opportunities for players willing to pay the price.

While you can pay the price to join the teams, get the equipment, and begin training, depending on the effort you put into it, you could be disappointed at the end of the year if you don’t give it your all. Just like every other junior league, you need to work tirelessly to stay ahead of the competition. Many Tier III coaches have sent their players to the NCAA Divisions. In contrast, others signed on to Tier I and II.

Before diving into Tier III, always consider how you might move ahead from the Tier III team to NCAA Hockey. These other leagues could be a good place to start if you’re determined to make a promising career playing hockey.

The Lesson

Most players in the NCAA have gone through one or more of the junior hockey leagues. Of course, you’ll find that some players skipped right into NHL consideration, while others may find themselves eligible for significant positions in the divisions due to their academics. The best way to NCAA is through the junior program.

The junior hockey coaches are well-trained to expose younger players to compete against more physically mature players every day. Since there’s no restriction, the Division I coaches believe that the best way to produce well-developed players is by matching the smaller players against bigger and better players.


The USHL is the highest level of junior hockey at the Tier I level. It attracts players from other teams, states, and other countries to compete against each other. Above all, it presents a significant opportunity for players to showcase their talents, get into their dream teams, and grow their talent with quality training. However, getting into the highest level of junior hockey is not a walk in the park.

Over the years, the USHL has produced elite NCAA players. No other league has had more influence in the NCAA that includes the award winners, overall numbers, and future NHL talent developing at the college level than USHL.