Youth hockey encompasses all levels of hockey below juniors. This goes from mites (U9) to Midget (U18). At Neutral Zone we start following and covering prospects in their Bantam season and Bantam (U14) to Midget U18 will be the focus of our information.
Bantam hockey, also known as U14 is the place where most younger players and families start the NCAA/CHL process, or at least thinking about it and making decisions based upon it. Players may choose to stay with their local youth organization and in some states like Minnesota, that is the norm. In other areas, players move from their local teams to AAA organizations. The AAA organizations pull from larger geographic regions and are more expensive but also play more games, better competition and most travel all across the US/Canada for tournaments and games. AAA is the highest level of U14 hockey in both the US and Canada.
For players growing up in Minnesota and westward in the US and all of Western Canada (MB, AB, SK, BC) they are eligible for the WHL draft after their Bantam season. Therefore, these players will be scouted and recruited throughout the Bantam season, they’ll be contacted by advisors/agents and have considerable pressure and scrutiny on them throughout the season. Compare this to a bantam level player in Michigan or Massachusetts and it’s a lot less pressure, there is very few of them being recruited by NCAA programs and only the very elite players are getting much attention from agents/advisors.
After the Bantam season players have more options as to where they can play. Some will go on to U15 or U16 midget hockey; others will attending their local high school and some will leave home and attend boarding school or hockey academies. Each of these options is unique and has its own set of pros and cons.
The U15 division is a relatively new concept in the United States having only been in place for the past few years; however, in places like Ontario, U15 hockey is the most followed and scouted level in all of amateur hockey. Therefore, it depends where the player is to determine whether U15/minor midget hockey is the right option.
In the Ottawa area and eastern Canada U15 isn’t really an option. It has become an option in Western Canada but the level of competition varies greatly. In Western Canada and the US the theory has been elite 15 year olds will play up at the U16 level, and the rest will play at the U15 level. That is not always the case however as some organizations try to stack their teams. Just last year (2017-2018 season) Jacob Turcotte, one of the countries best defenders played U15 hockey and went on to make the NTDP U17’s.
The benefit to a player choosing the U15 option is that they will playing against players their own age similar to bantam hockey. It allows players who are on the bubble between U15 and U16 to get more playing time, to play on special teams and touch the puck more. The downside to these players is the competition isn’t as strong and its hard for CHL and USHL scouts to project how a player will do in the next year or two against bigger, stronger, older competition.
In Ontario, U15, most commonly referred to as Minor Midget, is the gold standard of youth hockey in Canada. Most of the best players in the NHL played minor midget hockey: Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Seguin, etc. The benefit to Minor Midget in Ontario is that OHL scouts can see how the players stack up against others in the age group/draft class. Most of the top teams will play each other either in the regular season or in tournaments and therefore scouts can see where the players stack up against other draft prospects.
U16 hockey is played throughout the US and Western Canada and usually incapsulates two age groups; 15 and 16-year olds. This is the first time for many players to play against older players. Typically, the top 15-year olds in midget hockey are playing U16 in every major hockey area other than Ontario.
U16 hockey is where the game gets a bit faster and a bit more physical than U14 and U15. It is also a level where top level prospects are being recruited by CHL, USHL and NCAA programs. In the United States, it is arguably the most scouted level of hockey in the country.
The benefit for the 15-year-old player is they can play up a level, play with faster, older, better competition. For the 16-year-old players it is a good opportunity to be a leader, to have a lot of puck touches, make plays and develop their game.
U18/ Midget Major
U18 or midget major is played nearly everywhere in North America; in some regions such as Ottawa and Eastern Canada it is the only level of midget hockey they have. The competitiveness of U18 hockey varies form region to region; in areas where there is strong high school or prep or Tier 3 juniors than U18 is typically weaker. In areas of weaker high school and prep options or areas where the junior hockey is Junior A, Tier 1 or Tier 2 than U18 tends to be stronger like Michigan and Illinois.
Similar to the U16, the U18 level also has split season teams who play high school or prep school hockey during the regular season and some U18 games before and after the season. This is seen a lot in areas of strong high school and prep hockey like New England, New York, Atlantic, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The U18 level is the highest level of midget hockey; the players are older, faster and stronger than U16. The only downside to U18 is that it is not as skilled as U16 because most all of the elite level players go from U16 to either junior hockey or prep hockey.
High School / Prep / Hockey Academies
While High School, Prep School and Hockey Academies are all in the same category; they are all unique in their own way. High School hockey are teams affiliated with their local high schools. These players all come from the same town or county and grew up playing together in youth hockey. The competitiveness of high school hockey varies depending on the state; the best being Minnesota which is highly competitive and boasts the most famous youth hockey event in North America; the Minnesota High School State Championship which fills the 18,000 seat Excel Center in St. Paul. There are other states which have reputable high school hockey such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey but overall high school hockey as a whole has been depleted by midget and prep hockey. The benefit of high school is it’s the least expensive, the players are playing with teammates they grew up with and playing in front of friends and family and community members. The drawback would be the lack of depth in competition and the lack of resources to help develop players in comparison to midget programs and prep programs.
While high school hockey has both private and public schools; prep school hockey has boarding schools and day schools. Boarding schools are high schools where students live on campus and day schools the students live at home. The strongest collection of prep schools is found in New England and one of the top amateur leagues in North America. The benefit to prep school hockey are that players learn to live away from home in a structured, academically focused environment and play at a high level of competition with high quality coaches. They play about the same amount of games as high school teams but those games are more competitive and they typically receive more practice and off-ice training opportunities. The drawback to prep school is the cost to attend the schools and the academic rigor is not for everyone.
Lastly, the hockey academies which have sprawled up all over North America but are most concentrated in Western Canada. These hockey academies allow student athletes to have a hyper focus on hockey; they train daily under strength and conditioning professionals, they get extra ice time and focus on skill development and they attend classes built around their hockey schedule. The benefit of these academies is that they are getting a lot of hockey instruction, a lot of off-ice instruction and they are playing a lot more games than other high school or prep schools. The drawback is that these schools are not as strong academically as prep schools, they are expensive and they can be (in some instances) overly focused on winning and not development.
Midget Model vs. Prep/HS Model
This has become a major debate in youth hockey circles. What is the best route for youth prospects? We will discuss this in much more detail in our weekly blogs; however, to answer the question you’d have to know the goal. Are you developing a player for the CHL? For NCAA? Do you want the player to travel around North America and see the different areas or do you want them to have a great academic experience and opportunity? There isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” answer but each option has its own pros and cons.
High school hockey in Minnesota is storied, highly competitive, affordable for all and has developed some of the best prospects in the United States. However, there is a major difference between playing high school hockey in Minnesota than in neighboring state Wisconsin, which very well may be the second best high school hockey state. So, for a Wisconsin born player trying to figure out high school or midget or prep school or hockey academy isn’t an easy decision.
#1 best – #4 worst
Competitiveness: #4, outside of Minnesota, this is the lowest level competition among the 4
Academic/Athletic Balance: #2, depends on the area but a good mix of practice time, academics and game schedule
Affordability: #1, most high schools are free to play, free uniforms and team travel provided for by the school
Exposure: #4, outside of Minnesota, high school prospects get the lowest amount of NCAA, CHL, junior exposure
NCAA/CHL Placement: #4, lowest percentage of players who go on to player NCAA and CHL
Competitiveness: #1, prep programs, particularly in New England, tend to have great depth and their age range of 15-19 allow the younger prospects to play against bigger, stronger, older competition.
Academic/Athletic Balance: #1, some of the best private school institutions in the country combined with high level hockey. Most schools practice 4-5 days a week, 2 games a week and rigorous academic schedule.
Affordability: #4, the most expensive of the 4 options; some boarding schools are up to $60,000 USD per year. One caveat is that boarding schools do offer financial aid as well as scholarships, so elite students or elite athletes or students with middle or lower income families can qualify for assistance.
Exposure: #2, the prep holiday tournaments in New England are some of the most scouted tournaments in the country, however, they have very few tournaments and play 25 game schedules so it is not as easy for NCAA/CHL and junior programs to see them play.
NCAA/CHL Placement: #1, there is no league in youth hockey which puts more players into CHL and NCAA than New England Prep School; however, they are second to Tier 1 Midget in junior hockey and NCAA D1 placement.
Competitiveness: #2, hockey academies in Western Canada, especially at the Bantam level, is the most competitive hockey league in the area; the CSSHL. However, there are other hockey academies throughout the US and Canada who are a step below midget AAA hockey.
Academic/Athletic Balance: #4, this model tends to have more hockey and less academics than other options; they play a lot of games, they have a lot of practice and off-ice time and less schooling. Some of the schools are excellent, but other schools do online programs and have uncertified teachers.
Affordability: #3, like prep schools, many of the hockey academies have financial support which allows middle income and lower income families afford the program. While the player gets a lot for their investment, especially from a hockey perspective, it is expensive.
Exposure: #3, in Western Canada for Bantam level players the exposure would be ranked #1 as it’s the best feeder system for the WHL Draft; however, across the rest of Canada and US the hockey academies get good exposure, but not as good as Midget AAA.
NCAA/CHL Placement: #3, as a percentage the CSSHL has the best placement for the WHL and also does well putting prospects into juniors and NCAA. However, outside of the CSSHL hockey academies, there is a lower placement percentage in both CHL and NCAA.
Competitiveness: #3, Midget hockey at the highest levels, Top 20 AAA programs, are some of the most competitive youth hockey programs in the country. However, there are AA programs and even mid or low-level AAA programs which are a lot less competitive then the top echelon programs.
Academic/Athletic Balance: #3, most midget players attend local high schools in the area and some complete online schooling. The major difference between midget and high school players would be that midget players have to travel a lot, are in hotels many weekends and miss some school for major tournaments.
Affordability: #2, the cost of playing midget hockey depends on the organization and the travel; in Ontario for example it is fairly inexpensive as players don’t need to fly or spend a lot of time in hotels; however, teams in Western US who are flying most weekends are very expensive. Overall, on average, Midget hockey is cheaper than both prep and hockey academies. Some midget programs cost $2,500 and some are over $25,000 so there is quite a range.
Exposure: #1, the best benefit to midget hockey is the exposure. Most every midget league hosts several league tournaments throughout the year; the top leagues in the US such as the HPHL and Tier 1 Elite have tournaments nearly every month and GTHL hosts several tournaments in Ontario throughout the season. The tournaments are organized and well attended from junior, NCAA and CHL scouts.
NCAA/CHL Placement: #2, while the overall placement in percentage is second among the four options, it leads all options in NCAA D1, OHL, USHL and NAHL placement. The only area keeping them from #1 is they lack NCAA D3 placement.