“Ranking” the Junior Leagues by Any Other Standard is Ludicrous

The other guy gets a lot of traffic from an annual ranking of the junior leagues. They do it for what is essentially tiers one, two, and three.

The criteria for these rankings is in itself questionable. There are too many round pegs in comparison to square holes. It is impossible to rank leagues in this fashion. The only criteria that make sense is what is the absolute best developmental opportunity for each individual player. The path to NCAA Division I is different than Division III or ACHA.

As an advisory company we identify players that have exceptional educational records and display outstanding character. Simply said, without those first two in place, it doesn’t really matter what kind of hockey player he is. We are also interested is what the player’s vocational pursuits are and how he plans to pay for college. As a dad, I certainly don’t want to see our clients leaving school with a mountain of debt and no plan to get it cleared.

There are a lot of factors that come into play when talking about placement on junior teams. What’s good for one player is not necessarily good for everybody. The age of the prospect, geography, and maturity often determines the scope of destinations.

Then there’s the reality of COVID and vaccinations. For decades Canada has been a good go-to for 18-year-old prospects. That pathway has become more difficult in the COVID era. This has made finding the middle ground between youth or high school levels and the United States or North American Hockey Leagues more challenging.

What the other guy fails to mention is the hard data associated with the number of players actually playing Division 1 NCAA hockey games. 85%+ games are being played with student athletes from the United States Hockey League, North American Hockey League, and British Columbia Hockey Leagues.

Players with less than a season and a half in one of those leagues should be focused on the NCAA Division III or ACHA club hockey. That will be a hard pill to swallow for most junior players and prospects.

So, what leagues deliver the best opportunity? That really depends and when you start junior hockey, where you played AAA or AA hockey, academics, and how you plan on paying for college.

Clearly, the USHL, NAHL, and BCHL are the top leagues for NCAA Division I prospects.

The very best leagues for prospects targeting the top end NCAA Division III schools are the NAHL, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba Junior A leagues.

The United States Premier League’s NCDC division has done a remarkable job of providing an almost free-to-play path to east coast NCAA Division III programs. Yes, some NCDC players get to Division I, but take a look at the number of actual game minutes those players are getting. That evidence proves that the kids would have been much better off at NCAA Division III.

I love the Eastern Hockey League’s approach to being content with their role as an east coast Division III feeder program. They are actually doing a better job in that role than the NCDC.

The remaining Canadian Junior A leagues also fall into the Division III talent pool and remain a good developmental option for players targeting that level of collegiate play.

I do not see any advantages that the USPHL Premier, North American 3 Hockey League, or Canadian Junior B leagues have over one another. Families need to consider personal factors such as geography, costs, and targeted schools when making those decisions.

First year junior players need to find a pathway to their targeted levels of college hockey. If able to crack an NAHL, USHL, or BCHL roster right away, that’s great. At the same time, failing to do so does not mean it’s the end of that dream.

For most, that first year of junior hockey after high school provides the perfect time to totally focus on the player’s individual game. How that season is approached can easily be the difference between climbing the ladder of development and being at the pinnacle of the hockey career.

Players that can flip weaknesses into strengths while enhancing and refining skill sets will find higher level opportunities quickly. The trick is to secure the right program that is going to nurture that development.

We want to see our prospects move-up that ladder. In that effort, player agreements between players and teams get altered to allow such movement without restrictions. Month to month payments work better than being forced to pay a large amount of the fees upfront. Most families don’t look for that or even try to negotiate terms. Teams are more likely to be open to changes when dealing with us because they understand there are literally hundreds of our other clients they may have access to over the next ten years.

There are good and bad operators in every league. That’s inevitable. Trying to navigate the path between youth and college hockey without the guidance of a reputable and experienced advisor will cost a family many times the cost of the advisor.

As the season approaches, some players will realize that having all the eggs in one basket may not have been the best way to go. For those that may need some help, let’s have a conversation.