USA Hockey and Hockey Canada provide a level of hockey referred to as junior hockey; other countries would refer to this level as U20 or U21 leagues like an extension of North America’s midget hockey model.
In general terms, Junior Hockey provides high school graduates with another year or two of competitive hockey before going onto the next level and it can also serve as an alternative for prep, high school or midget hockey. Most leagues are comprised of player between the ages of 16 and 21 with the bulk coming between ages 18-19.
Junior hockey has several different leagues and divisions similar to the college system. Tier 1 is the highest caliber of hockey in the United States and the only league with Tier 1 status is the United States Hockey League (USHL). To reach and obtain Tier 1 status the league must uniformly meet a set of criteria governed by USA Hockey. However, what it means for the player/parent is the league is free to play, the equipment is free, travel is free and the housing is provided for by the team (also free of charge). To play in the USHL a player must be drafted or signed by an organization. The league does host combines for younger players to be scouted by USHL clubs and to learn about the league; however, teams do not host tryouts for this league and only top echelon, NCAA D1/CHL prospects can play in this league.
The next level down is Tier 2 which also has just one league in the US called the North American Hockey League (NAHL). In Tier 2 the player is not charged a fee to play on the team, some of the equipment is provided for and travel is free. The only expense incurred by the player/parent is housing (referred to as billeting). While the NAHL has a draft system similar to the USHL, they acquire most of their prospects through free-agency recruiting similar to NCAA. They also host training camps and tryout camps for players who were not signed or went undrafted. These camps are largely considered “money makers” for the junior team to help off-set some of the costs associated with the team; however, there are players who get signed out of those camps. The NAHL tends to be older than the USHL with more 20-year-old players and it is more geographically spread out. The players in this league primarily end up in NCAA D1 and NCAA D3 programs.
The next level of US junior hockey is Tier 3 which is also referred to as “pay to play” hockey. Tier 3 junior hockey makes up over 80% of the registered junior teams in the US. These leagues are EHL, USPHL and NA3HL. The players/parents are charged a fee to play on the team (typically referred to as “tuition”) as well as paying for most of their equipment and housing. These leagues are comprised primarily of NCAA D3 and AHCA club hockey prospects. To play Tier 3 hockey prospects are either recruited from prep/high school/midget or they are invited to training camps or try out camps and make it from there.
There are two leagues in the US who do not fall into a Tier category as they are un-sanctioned leagues by USA Hockey and that is WSHL and the NCDC. These two leagues are similar to Tier 2 where the players do not pay to play on the team but are responsible for their own housing arrangements, most of their equipment and other fees. The WSHL has a lot of European prospects and some go on to play in other junior leagues and NCAA D3. The NCDC is comprised primarily of NCAA D3 prospects but also has NCAA D1 prospect as well.
The Canadian junior leagues are not broken down into Tier systems like the US model; they instead work under the Junior A and Junior B model. Junior A hockey is governed by the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL). The CJHL hosts a tournament at the end of the season called the RBC Cup which takes the best junior teams from around Canada and invites them to national championship.
Junior A does not have the same uniform rules the way Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 have in USA Hockey. There are some Junior A leagues like the BCHL that pay no tuition fees and then there are other leagues such as the CCHL and OJHL that do charge players to play. There is also a difference in competition level between Junior A leagues; the BCHL for example is primarily comprised of NCAA D1/CHL prospects where the NOJHL has very few NCAA/CHL prospects at all.
Below Junior A system is Junior B with leagues such as GOJHL, KIJHL, NWJHL, etc. The Junior B model varies in ability but most of these prospects are either young CHL prospects who are not good enough to play Junior A (primarily in GOJHL) or they are older prospects who are not NCAA or CHL prospects. Some of these leagues charge, some of these leagues are free, it depends on the individual league.
United States vs. Canadian Junior Route
There are benefits and drawbacks to both routes; we will go through those but we will also rank the junior leagues and list the following criteria: NCAA/CHL Placement, NHL Draft prospects, Parity/Competitiveness and cost benefit.
- USHL (US – Midwest, Central)
- BCHL (CAN – British Columbia)
- NAHL (US – Midwest, Central, South, East)
- AJHL (CAN – Alberta)
- OJHL (CAN – Ontario)
- NCDC (US – Northeast)
- CCHL (CAN – Ontario)
- SJHL (CAN – Saskatchewan)
- MJHL (CAN – Manitoba)
- EHL (US – Northeast)
- GOJHL (CAN – Ontario)
- NA3HL (US – Midwest, Central, South, East)
The USHL is the standard in which all other junior leagues (non-CHL) can be judged. They have the highest number of NHL draft picks, they have the best NCAA placement and success rates, the largest attendance numbers and its free for players. The development, coaching, resources, competition and exposure are the best in all of North America. With that being said it would be unfair to say US junior hockey as a whole is better than Canadian junior hockey as a whole. It would be more appropriate to break down each league for some of the positives and negative attributes of those leagues in our top 4 rankings.
Competition: #1, most parity in junior hockey and deepest league in player talent
NCAA/CHL Placement: #1, over 95% of these prospects go to NCAA D1 or CHL.
NHL Draft Prospects: #1, highest number of NHL drafted players as well as top 3 round prospects
Costs/Benefit: #1, USHL is free – no housing expense, team expense, travel expense or equipment expense
Competition: #2, parity isn’t as strong as some others but the top 10 teams could compete in USHL
NCAA/CHL Placement: #2, second highest producer of NCAA/CHL talent
NHL Draft Prospects: #2, third in total number of NHL Draft picks (2010-2018) but second in Rounds 1-3 selected.
Costs/Benefit: #2, BCHL is a non-tuition league where the players play for free.
Competition: #3, solid parity and high percentage of players in the league go onto NCAA
NCAA/CHL Placement: #3, low CHL placement but second highest NCAA placement in NCAA D1 & D3
NHL Draft Prospects: #3, second in total number of NHL Draft picks (2010-2018) but fourth in Rounds 1-3 selected.
Costs/Benefit: #3, NAHL is a non-tuition league where the players play for free.
Competition: #4 solid parity and high number of players who go on to succeed at CHL & NCAA levels
NCAA/CHL Placement: #4, high CHL and medium NCAA placement; second highest in the CJHL
NHL Draft Prospects: #4, fourth in total number of players drafted but third in Rounds 1-3 selected
Cost/Benefit: #4 AJHL is a non-tuition league where the players play for free.
Some important things to remember when looking at junior hockey programs:
- Be careful with training/try-out camps. Most of these teams are already picked and these camps serve as a money-making opportunity than a legitimate chance to make the team.
- Placement matters. Are the players on the previous years team going NCAA, are they going CHL, are they going to club hockey, etc. Are the previous years graduates going to the same places you want to go? Don’t fall into the trap of looking at players from 5, 10, 15 years ago and where they went. Relevancy is important.
- Research the teams trade habits; is this a team who is patient developing their players or are they trading off players when they don’t produce? Is the coach more about winning or developing prospects?
- Be careful before signing a contract with a junior team. Read through the fine print, make sure you know what you are getting yourself into and ask an advisor or trusted hockey person outside of that organization any questions.
- How are the previous years graduates doing at the next level? Are the NCAA freshman and CHL rookies showing they were prepared for that level of play?
- Does the league or the team play younger players or are most of the top 6 forwards and top 4 defenders 19 or 20-year old’s?
- Make sure to comply with NCAA programs educational requirements and make sure the player is in line with the NCAA Clearinghouse. Some players enter junior hockey before they graduate from high school and those players need to make sure they are taken the proper courses to graduate and be compliant with the NCAA. Other players enter juniors after graduating from high school and those players need to make sure they are taking courses that will transfer at the college level and will be taken seriously by admissions offices.
How do I play on a junior hockey team?
The USHL has two drafts. One is the Phase 1 where they select 16-year-old prospects throughout the world who are strong Tier 1 prospects with bright NCAA/CHL and some even NHL futures ahead of them. There is also a Phase II draft which is open to all players aged 16-20 who are not already protected by a USHL club. The Phase II draft fills team immediate needs and the Phase I is for organizations future.
The NAHL also has a draft as does the NCDC, CCHL and NA3HL also have drafts; the CCHL and NCDC have Bantam drafts and then regular drafts open to players of all ages.
The OJHL, AJHL, BCHL, EHL, GOJHL and most other junior leagues in North America do not have a draft system; they work on a free-agency model similar to NCAA hockey where players are recruited or taken out of tryout/training camps.