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US Junior Ice Hockey – Leagues

In a previous post I compared Swiss Junior Hockey with the USA Hockey Junior model  {Junior Hockey: Comparison USA – Switzerland}. The US Junior Hockey system is hard to understand for a European. I see this in the dazzled looks every time I try to explain the various Tier’s, and Leagues in the Tier III, and the emails I receive on the subject.  Here’s an attempt to explain the US Junior Hockey system, mostly based on a recent article by Alex Kyrias, Director Communications and Sales, NAHL (Junior Hockey: make the smart and informed decision)

Most countries have one national ice hockey federation regulating all aspects of the sport including Juniors (in Switzerland: SIHF). USA Hockey fullfills this role in the US, governing all aspects of the sport. It also is the official representative to the US Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and works with the NHL and the NCAA.

USA Hockey supports and promotes the Ladder of Development in junior hockey, providing for developmental advancement opportunities based upon skill level. All leagues and teams are certified, annually, by the USA Hockey Junior Council in three (3) classifications: Tier I; Tier II; Tier III; and provisional for any of the foregoing classifications. Here are the USA Hockey approved Junior Leagues:

Tier I    USHL
Tier II   NAHL

USA Hockey limits the number of imports per team. Currently, four foreign players are allowed per team. Following is an overview of the three Tiers and their leagues:

TIER I – 16 teams (plus USA U-18)

There is only ONE Tier l league in the United States and that is the United States Hockey League (USHL). The Tier I program is a player development concept designed to become the best amateur hockey league in the world which will attract the top 16-20 year-old players and further develop its players, coaches, and officials through the highest level of competition. In this years NHL draft 37 players were selected who spent time in the USHL. A new record. Only the WHL  had more players drafted from its ranks.

The League limits the number of overaged players to four per team (players who have their 20th Birthday during the Seasons start calendar year (in the 2015/16 Season = 1995’s).

• Free Tuition. All training, coaching, and developmental services are covered by the team and the league.
• Free Equipment. Equipment costs covered by team through a partnership with an equipment manufacturer. Each player has access to skates, sticks, protective equipment, and training apparel at no cost.
• Free Housing. Housing costs covered by team through a network of billet homes in the local community. Each player is afforded their own private sleeping area, meals, laundry, and other family services.
• Free Travel. All Tier 1 teams are required to provide motorcoach ground transportation, hotel rooms, and meals for away games when applicable (some away games are local).

TIER II – 22 Teams

There is only ONE Tier II league in the United States and that is the North American Hockey League (NAHL). Its goal is the social maturity and skill development of student-athletes ages 16-20 with aspirations of advancing to collegiate and/or professional hockey.  There is no overaged limit in the NAHL.

In this years NHL draft 5 current NAHL players were selected plus two former players who advanced to the USHL. More than 400 players have committed to play NCAA College Hockey. Only the USHL has more players with College commitments.

• Free Tuition. All training, coaching, and developmental services are covered by the team and the league.
• Free Travel. All teams are required to provide motorcoach ground transportation and hotel rooms for away games when applicable.
• Housing Stipend. Housing costs are supplemented through team relationships with a network of billet homes in the local community.
• Equipment. All players are provided with sticks, pants, gloves, helmets, jerseys, and socks at no cost.I


The Tier III leagues and teams provide a competitive opportunity for the elite player on a regional and localized geographic basis who aspires playing in the NAHL or USHL and eventually the NCAA or American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). There are currently seven leagues certified by USA Hockey for competition at the Tier III level.

The Tier III Leagues are paid to play leagues. Players pay a fee for training, coaching, and developmental services.

• Team fee $6,000 to $12,000 per season, depending on the team and its location (travel cost).
• Travel cost, including if needed, hotels and meals, are usually included in the team fee for the regular season. Play-offs extra.
• Players reside in billet homes in the local community. The cost is $300 to $450/month depending on the teams location (cost of living).
• Equipment. All players are usually provided with pants (cover), gloves, helmets, jerseys, socks and training apparel at no cost. In some leagues players have the exclusive benefit of equipment partnership relationships.

There are also leagues operating outside the control of USA Hockey. Some of the top teams of these leagues are at the level of an average Tier III team, in some cases even higher. These leagues have their own rules and regulations. The teams have more leeway and it makes the leagues less transparent. Some of the leagues are allowed to give so called scholarships to offset some of the team fee, a practice not allowed in the USA Hockey sanctioned Tier III Leagues. The number of imports is limited to 14 which makes these leagues very interesting for European players.

The selection of an appropriate league and/or team needs careful consideration and knowledge. It also depends largely on the goals and abilities of each individual player. If the goal is to play NCAA College Hockey, you almost have to play in a USA Hockey sanctioned league. There is no rule without exception, and some players, from non USA Hockey sanctioned leagues, made it to the NCAA, predominantly D3, either directly or indirectly (through Tier II or I).



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