How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 1: Varsity (NCAA) vs. Club (ACHA) Hockey
How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 2: NCAA D1 Conference Breakdown
How Stuff Works - College Hockey Edition, Part 3: NCAA and Junior Hockey
In last part of this series, I discussed how junior hockey works, mostly in relation to college hockey. Consider this post more for your "Useless Sports Information" files - unless, of course, you plan to add junior hockey to your list of leagues you want to follow. (And considering this whole lockout mess, that might not be the worst of ideas for the hockey-starved out there.) In this post, I'll go through the more notable junior hockey leagues to help create a general guide of the talent level of new prospects.
Major Junior Hockey (Canada):
Canadian major junior hockey includes three leagues - the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Western Hockey League (WHL). I won't go into too much detail on these three, as they are considered "professional" leagues in the eyes of the NCAA. Without getting into all of the details and caveats, once a player plays in a single game at the major junior level, they are no longer eligible to play in the NCAA. (For those wondering, they are eligible for Canadian colleges/universities, and grants/scholarships have been set up to help players from these leagues get their educations should hockey not work out for them.) So we really won't see any players coming to Penn State that are coming out of these leagues. However, as is the case with former recruit Conor Garland, Penn State may lose recruits who decide to go to one of these teams.
It should come to no surprise that these leagues have produced some of the greatest names in hockey history. Players like Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Clarke, Bossy, Lindros have come through these leagues and into NHL prominence. Basically, these are a group of 5-star recruits that never play in the NCAA.
Best Team Names:
OHL - Mississauga Steelheads, because if your city sounds like a southern US state, better make your mascot a rainbow trout; Honorable Mention - Ottawa 67's (As in "We were founded in 1967") and Windsor Spitfires (WWII fighter aircraft get some love).
WHL - Tri-City Americans, which sounds like a heel tag-team from the WWE days of yore; Honorable Mention - Edmonton Oil Kings (it's hard enough to believe the Oilers, now you want us to believe you're royalty?) and Portland Winterhawks (sounds like an awesome bird, is really just a play on the Chicago Blackhawks).
QMJHL - Halifax Mooseheads, because the visual is great, and the name is made even better knowing that it is named for the Canadian brewery of the same name. Honorable Mention - Baie-Comeau Drakkar, because there aren't enough teams named after a type of Viking ship.
Junior 'A' Hockey (Canada):
Junior A is the first step down from Major Junior, and will sometimes be referred to its old designation of Tier II hockey (or Junior 'AAA' in Quebec). These leagues are considered amateur by the NCAA, meaning these players can make the jump to the NCAA. This is where things can get very confusing, especially if we're trying to keep track of individual leagues. The oversight league for A-level hockey is the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL). Again, the CJHL is just the oversight association, as there are no teams that are associated with just the CJHL. Rather, there are ten leagues that make up the CJHL:
|Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL)||AJHL||Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL)||NOJHL|
|British Colombia Hockey League (BCHL)||BCHL||Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL)||OJHL|
|Central Canadian Hockey League (CCHL or CJHL, to confuse everyone)||CCHL||Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League (LHJAAAQ)||LHJAAAQ|
|Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL)||MJHL||Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL)||SJHL|
|Maritime Hockey League (MHL)||MHL||Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL)||SIJHL|
A large and growing number of players will come out of these leagues and play in the NCAA, although the better quality players are making the jump straight to the NHL. Two of Penn State's top scorers, David Glen and Curtis Loik, are both from these leagues (AJHL and BCHL, respectively). These are players who have been just passed over by the Major Junior hockey leagues (or completely missed and overlooked), so there is definitely a deep pool of talent to be found. Kyle Turris, Travis Zajac, Rod Brind'Amour, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Paul Kariya, and Dany Heatley are all Junior A alums. Figure these are mostly 3- and 4-star recruits, with a couple of 5-stars waiting to be found.
(And yes, you are allowed to laugh at the Ligue de Hockey Junior AAA du Quebec and their all-French website, those French-Canadian hosers.)
Oh, there are a ton of team names to enjoy with these leagues. Their love of the black gold continues (Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Okotoks Oilers, Virden Oil Capitals), as does their love for years of founding (Kemptville 73's) and odd fish (Lindsay Muskies, which might also be a girl I graduated with in high school). Speaking of graduating, there's the Cumberland Grads, whose logo includes a male hockey player wearing a graduation cap. Other odd-ball names include the Penticton Vees (named so because three types of peaches that grow in the area all start with "V"), the Melville Millionaires, the Terrebonne Cobras (Canada and snakes don't match up in my head), and the Granby Inouk, because of their sweet logo.
Junior 'B', 'C', 'D' Leagues (Canada):
As you move down the line, things become much more murky. On the plus side, the level of talent as we move down this way starts to drop off more and more, so there won't be many players coming out of these groups. Junior 'C' and 'D' levels are much more locally controlled and do not have the connections that the higher-level leagues have. At the Junior 'B' level, there are two major leagues that still have some talent - the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL) and the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League (EOJHL). Both of these have connections to a Junior 'A' league (OJHL and CCHL, respectively), which helps them collect some of that borderline talent. For a recruiting comparison, think FCS and DII/DIII talent. Most of these are guys just looking to continue to play hockey, with a handful of guys who can still turn into NHL talent.
Tier I and Tier II (United States):
We now make the jump back into the US to look at the two leagues that make up the large majority of NCAA DI hockey players. There is currently one league in each of Tier I and Tier II junior hockey in the USA. Tier I hockey is the home of the United States Hockey League (USHL) and is close to being on par with the Major Junior Canadian hockey leagues in terms of talent. The growing draw to the USHL is the high talent level combined with the opportunity to play at the NCAA level, which might be the only explanation as to how there are so many successful hockey teams in midwestern states like Iowa and Nebraska. A large percentage of Penn State's current roster includes players that have played on USHL teams, including captain Tommy Olczyk and goaltender Matt Skoff - both played for the Souix City Musketeers. In terms of silly team names, I believe the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders is the leader for the USHL.
Tier II junior hockey consists of one league as well - the North American Hockey League (NAHL). There is a bit of a drop off in talent here, as the NAHL sits behind the Canadian Junior A hockey leagues when trying to rank the divisions. Still, there is talent to be found in these leagues, and many schools will use the NAHL to help fill out their teams. Thanks to the movement of players between teams and leagues, top players will start in the NAHL, before making the move to another league like the USHL. (Incoming goalie commit Eamon McAdam followed this path.) Unlike the USHL which is made up mostly of teams in the midwest, the NAHL has teams across the country - from New York and Pennsylvania, down to Texas (home of the Odessa Jackalopes) and Kansas, all the way up to Alaska. If we're trying to keep with the recruit stars analogy, USHL ranges from 3- to 5-star players, while the NAHL sees more in the 2- to 3-star range.
Tier III, AAU, and Other Leagues (United States):
Like Canada, once you get below the top two groupings of juniors, there's a long-list of leagues and a thinning out of the talent pool. Players at Tier III are usually looking to use the playing time as a chance to move up to the USHL or the NAHL. Otherwise, they usually find their way to NCAA D3 schools or the ACHA. The AAU leagues are a recent change, and these are merely leagues that no longer wanted to be under the umbrella of USA Hockey. There is currently one league in the AAU, with two more expected to join in the next year or so. In any case, the talent level is much like that of the Tier III teams.
The other leagues to merely take note of are the midget and developmental leagues that focus on the Under-18 and Under-16 groupings. Naturally, these are more for the development of the players to help them move to higher-talent leagues like the CJHL and USHL - the USHL has an agreement with the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League to help develop the talent. The reason I'm mentioning these leagues is because many NHL (and their minor league affiliates) will sponsor teams in these leagues.
In an attempt to summarize: Major Junior Hockey in Canada (WHL, OHL, QMJHL) is very good and is filled with players ineligible for the NCAA; Canadian Junior 'A' and the USHL are high quality leagues with top talent should Penn State get players from these leagues; the NAHL is decent for filling out a roster; and everything else should hopefully be used as a jumping point for higher leagues. Welcome to college and junior hockey!
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