In Europe’ Junior Hockey includes all age levels starting at U6 and going all the way up to U20. In the US they distinguish between Youth Hockey and Junior Hockey. Youth hockey starts at the U6 level (Mites) up to U18 (Midget). The Junior Hockey Leagues age group is 16 – 20 (see my post US Junior Ice Hockey – Leagues). There is an overlap at the 16-18 age level where players already play in Junior Leagues or at the Midget (Youth) level (more about this further down).
As in Europe (example Switzerland with Top and Elite teams) in the US the various youth levels are classified. The categorization used is A, AA, AAA (the latter being the highest) leagues.
In 2009 USA Hockey introduced The American Development Model (ADM) with the tag words Play, Love and Excel. It puts emphasis on having fun while learning the fundamentals which will result in the love of the game, getting away from the old model where winning becomes the main focus at a young age. ADM does not only include Mites, Squirts and Pewees, it goes up to the Junior level, with its ultimate goal “Hockey for Life”. For more information about ADM (http://www.admkids.com)
As mentioned in the first paragraph, at the age of 16 to 18, players have the choice between different paths: already playing Junior hockey or continuing at the highest Midget level (AAA). It will depend on where a player is developmentally (skill and maturity). Some are strong enough to already play against players 2 to 3 years older, others will benefit from playing AAA at their appropriate age level. It is always better to be a top 6 forward, or a top 4 D, on a team and get significant ice time in key situations than playing minimal minutes at the higher level. Medium / Long term the player will benefit more from becoming a key player on the lower level team.
Here is an illustration of the USA Hockey pyramid up to the NHL:
It is not an easy decision in when to switch to the Junior level. A good coach, and advisor, can usually help a player and his parents make the right decision. All too often, parents and guardians take a short term view, thinking that their son or daughter should always play above his or her age group. With exceptionally talented individuals, that is usually the correct decision. But there are very few of those players around!