Best Junior Hockey
Junior hockey leagues may provide a younger player with many opportunities, both athletically and academically. Some top leagues provide top coaching and academic support and have ties to colleges and institutions to further their future options. Yet, it may still be challenging to choose the most suitable league.
The best junior leagues are the United States Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League. They are followed by the North American Hockey League and the British Columbia Hockey League in 2020.
To understand which junior hockey league is best, you first must know how the tier systems work in junior hockey leagues. We have provided you with a comprehensive breakdown of the high-quality leagues, how the tier system works and what hockey league will best suit your needs.
Not every junior league is created equal. There are three different levels of junior hockey in the US, and the USA Hockey Junior Council determines these leagues and their teams according to their standard of play and standards of operations. These certifications are upgraded annually by the council according to their annual performance.
The only Tier 1 classified hockey league in the US is the United States Hockey League (USHL). US colleges heavily scout the USHL because it has the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) protection, meaning that players retain college eligibility.
All the player’s equipment and uniforms are supplied by the league as well as top tier lodging. The all-inclusive aspect places this league firmly as the best option in the junior levels.
The USHL has top quality coaches, best ice hockey facilities, provides proper practice and league play balance for optimal performance. They also maintain balanced age divisions with fewer players over 20, and their 17, 18, and 19-year-olds have balanced numbers.
The USHL is a great stepping stone between the junior league and college or professional play. Statistics show that 80-90 percent of USHL players continue to NCAA hockey, with over one third advancing to NHL from 2019.
The only league ranked Tier 2 in the US is the North American Hockey League (NAHL). It is ranked below the United States Hockey League in terms of its players and standards but is still highly competitive. They have a higher number of 20-year-old players on their teams, and these players remain eligible for college. The NCAA scouts the NAHL for both divisions I and III players, so players do receive exposure to possible recruiting.
Most of the US junior hockey leagues are rated Tier 3, and these include:
- Eastern Hockey League
- North America 3 Hockey League
- US Premier Hockey League
- Minnesota Junior Hockey League
- Metropolitan Junior Hockey League
- Northern Pacific Hockey League
Ranked below the North American Hockey league, these are leagues that expect tuition fees. Though they are competitive and maintain a high standard of play, they are not as routinely scouted.
The Tier 3 division players are expected to pay room and board and tuition costs ranging from $4,000 to $9,000. Tier 3 is considered an amateur division. However, players may be recruited from this division to NCAA division 1 schools or move to Tier 1 or Tier 2.
Hailed as the most competitive junior league globally, the United States Hockey League dominates the rankings. The USHL is not only responsible for the Tier 1 equipment and housing but also improved the standards of coaching, training, facilities, education, and travel. The USHL dominates the path for development to professional play.
The majority of players spend 1-2 years in the USHL before moving on to college or professional ranks, and the high standard of the Tier 1s are set to grow. The league continues to upgrade its business operations, rink requirements, off-ice facilities, and academic supervision.
The USHL will continue to be a viable option for players who want to keep their NCAA options open, and this number is expected to grow.
The Ontario Hockey League has three major junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey league. The league caters for players aged 16-21, and there are currently 20 teams in the Ontario Hockey League:
- 17 teams in Ontario
- Two teams in Michigan
- One team in Pennsylvania
Established in 1933, the league has become a high profile marketable commodity with many broadcasts on television and media. Over the past several years, there have been multiple OHL players selected in the first and second rounds of the NHL drafts. Some speculate that their numbers will decline as players seek to keep their NCAA opportunities open.
The Western Hockey League was founded in 1966 and comprised 22 teams divided into two conferences of two divisions. These are:
- Eastern Conference: 12 teams from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta
- Western Conference: 10 teams from British Columbia and US states of Washington and Oregon
The Western Hockey League is a major junior ice hockey league that makes up one of the three Canadian Hockey Team teams. The WHL has a Bantam Draft, an annual selection of 14-15-year-olds eligible to play. There are only five games for 15-year-olds unless the team’s season has ended.
They have a reputation for a high standard of defensive play, and they have been producing talented offensive players in recent years.
The North American Hockey League leads up the direct to NCAA Division 1 placement list. The players tend to be a little older on average. The league is fiercely competitive, and it is not easy to get a placement in the league. The NAHL is one of the best developmental leagues and is the only Tier II certified junior league.
It is also one of the longest-running hockey leagues and is based in Texas. The league comprises four divisions of 26 teams that come from Maine, Alaska, and Texas.
The British Columbia Hockey League is a Junior A hockey league from British Columbia. It falls under Hockey Canada, part of the Canadian Junior Hockey League. The BCHL includes 17 teams divided into the three divisions of Mainland, Interior, and Island, and continues to be one of the highest providers of talent for the NCAA placement.
They have built a reputation for maintaining high standards in both recruitment and player development.
The Quebec Major Junior League was founded in 1969 and one of the three leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League. The league has 18 teams in the province of:
- Nova Scotia
- New Brunswick
- Prince Edward Island
According to some sources, the QMJHL still produces high-quality NHL players, but its popularity has declined somewhat. Fewer players opt for the league over Junior A or heading to the USA. However, its reputation and consistent standards keep the league in the 6th place of best hockey leagues.
The National Collegiate Development Conference is a free tuition junior hockey league made up of 13 teams based in the Northeast United States. The league is dedicated to develop and advance young hockey players towards college and professional hockey.
The NCDC is becoming increasingly popular with its free to play plan, and several players have moved up to division 1 and division 3 of the NCAA programs. With dedicated support for young ice hockey players, the NCDC will continue to move up the ranks as one of the best junior hockey leagues.
The Eastern Hockey League (EHL) is a Tier III junior ice hockey league based in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic United States. On June the 16th, 2013, the league rebranded itself when six members from the old Eastern Hockey league joined the Atlantic Junior Hockey League.
The league aims to prepare high school students and college-aged students to play for college and professional teams. The league boasts hundreds of previous players that have gone on to play for NCAA colleges and professional leagues. The EHL is a leader in NCAA Division 1, and 2 placements and top standard coaching, administration, and top tier players keep the EHL on the best of the league’s list.
The United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) is a hockey league that has grown into over 60 organizations since 2012. The USPHL is one of the top developmental leagues in North America and has a steady stream of players moving to the Tier 2 and NCAA programs.
The Alberta Junior Hockey League was founded in 1964 as a five-team league and now has 16 teams in play. The AJHL belongs to the Canadian Junior Hockey League and aims to develop student-athletes in athletics and academics. Over 300 of their alumni compete on college-level or with NHL teams.
The AJHL has received attention from NHL scouts, and 90 of their players have been in the NHL Entry draft directly from the AJHL.
Canada has three levels of junior hockey, which are called Major Juniors, Junior A, and Junior B, C, and D. The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) have three major junior leagues:
- Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
- Ontario Hockey League
- Western Hockey league
The difference between Major Juniors and the American Tier divisions is that Major Junior players are no longer eligible for college play in America. That means that they are no longer part of the league when they reach 20 years old. Their options would then be professional hockey contracts or amateur settings like the NCAA.
The Canadian Junior Hockey League has 10 Junior A leagues. These league players are not Major Junior players and retain their American college recruitment eligibility through the NCAA.
These teams are locally based and are less competitive than the other divisions. The players generally feed into their local minor hockey teams. Still, they tend to provide fewer college players than the USHL.
European hockey has marked differences from Canadian and American ice hockey styles. Still, developmental leagues in Europe are equipping players to streamline into American or Canadian play. These countries include:
Germany has a reasonably consistent ice hockey following and has four hockey leagues in operation for several years:
- 2nd Bundesliga
The Deutsche Nachwuchs Liga and the Schüler-Bundesliga have an essential role in developing junior hockey players. The Scheuler-BL has its focus on under 16 players while the DNL deals with players 16 and upwards. Although players don’t often move up to the NHL, their progress has been steady and consistent.
Over several years some Swiss players have been taking their place in American hockey, such as Luca Sbisa, Jonas Hiller, and Damien Brunner. The Swiss have an impressive developmental program that will continue to show results. The Swiss Elite Junior A and Swiss Elite Junior B are divided into 26 teams.
Although they work quite differently to American and Canadian leagues, they have successfully moved up players from junior leagues to professional play.
Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, and Milan Hejduk are well-known faces on the NHL scene. The Czech Republic made a great effort to develop its younger hockey players. The Czech U20 league (NOEN Extraliga Junioru has 18 teams of under 20 players representing their country. This league has been pivotal in developing the country’s hockey talent.
Russian junior leagues have developed some high-quality players such as Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk. Younger players may also hope to join the NHL with guidance. Their MLH division A has 33 teams from various countries catering to players between 17-21 years old.
The MHL-B has 31 teams, and since its start in 2011, they have established a reputation for high-quality play and players.
With some of Europe’s best developmental leagues, the SM-Liiga has sent a steady stream of players to the NHL. The Jr A SM-Liiga has been pivotal in developing young players for professional play. The Jr A SM-Liiga is composed of 16 teams that may interchange players during the hockey season. They are known to produce top tier talent for the NHL and SM-Liiga consistently.
Sweden has a highly organized and competitive ice hockey program for younger players. The SHL is a lucrative option, as well as for other professional teams across Europe. The J20 Elit (37 teams) and the J20 SuperElit (20 teams) have many up and coming hockey players for both Swedish professional play and in North America for the NHL.
Junior hockey may be the gateway to college hockey, and your chosen team should emphasize the academic component and the athletic. Many leagues develop relationships with high schools and colleges to ensure that their players have educational benefits. At a junior level, coaches should engage with a player’s academic curriculum and have consequences for poor grades, missed assignments, etc.
Most USHL teams employ academic advisors to help players maintain their academic standards and prepare for college entrance exams. The level of academic engagement may vary team to team, so this should be part of your inquiry for a prospective league.
Junior hockey leagues teach younger players to work within a team and the responsibility that entails. They also learn a correlation between their temper and in-game punishments. The game instills respect for your opponent, even if the play was hard, and fosters maturity. The psychological aspects of game focus and self-betterment and perseverance push a young player in good stead for their later world dealings.
Rigorous exercise teaches younger players about the importance of training and practice in maintaining a healthy body. Play strengthens back, leg, and arms in play and quick reactions in play improve balance and coordination.
The importance of an exercise regimen is lacking in modern youth. Lifestyles of inactivity in front of screens and tablets set unhealthy precedents for young people’s future lives. The rigorous training and play are essential to modern life and often overlooked for academic achievement.
Colleges routinely scout the better junior leagues for those who display talent in ice hockey. If your child has talent, it may go unnoticed in some of the lesser leagues, and your child may have less chance of using his sporting skills to seek scholarships and other educational advantages.
Junior leagues can be such a great stepping stone to a player’s future and provide much more than just a rink to play at. Choosing the league that is right for you and that ticks all of the boxes takes intense research and attention to fine details. You should not be afraid to ask questions and expect clear answers from your prospective league. The right league could line you up to fulfil your dreams for yourself or your child’s future.
- North American Hockey League: Junior Hockey: Make the Smart and Informed Decision
- USA Hockey Magazine: Navigating the Junior Hockey Landscape
- USHL Network: The Junior Hockey Landscape: What You Need to Know
- The Junior HockeyNews: Rating the Junior Hockey Leagues
- SportsRec: Hockey’s Advantages and Disadvantages
- Wikipedia: Quebec Major Junior League
- Wikipedia: Junior Ice Hockey
- Wikipedia: United States Premier Hockey League
- AJHL: Home
- Wikipedia: Eastern Hockey League
- NCDC: Home
- British Columbia Hockey League: Home
- Wikipedia: Western Hockey League
- USHL: Home
- Wikipedia: SM-Liiga
- Elite prospects: J20 Elit
- Elite prospects: Schüler Bundesliga
- Wikipedia: DNL
- NCAA: Home
- Wikipedia: The Canadian Hockey League
- International hockey: NOEN Extraliga