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Junior hockey: the bridge to men’s college hockey

06/02/2020, 6:00am CDT
By Matt Carey

Making juniors and college is a process

Many youth and high school players aspire to play college hockey. Parents dream about a scholarship to pay for it!  Unfortunately, most people lack clarity regarding the route to college hockey. 

Junior hockey is the bridge to college hockey (A future article will explain and breakdown the different college hockey levels).   It is very rare to play college hockey without playing at least one season of juniors.  Junior hockey has a typical age range of 16 to 21, with 2000 birth year the oldest for the 2020/21 season.  Leagues are in United States and Canada, but we will focus on leagues in United States.  The level of skill, operating budgets, attendance and scouting opportunities vary greatly from one league to another. 

In the United States, the three best leagues are in order: 
1. United States Hockey League (Tier 1)
2. North American Hockey League (Tier 2)
3. National Collegiate Development Conference (Not classified) 

If you are good enough to play in the USHL, your parent’s dream of a college scholarship will probably become a reality.  USHL teams pay for virtually all the players’ expenses, including housing. NAHL teams pay for most of the players’ expenses, but not housing.  NCDC teams do not charge players a fee to play, but players do have other costs.  

The remaining junior leagues in the United States are pay-to-play.  None of the pay-to-play leagues would be considered recruiting grounds for NCAA D-1.  A realistic outcome for a player at a pay-to-play league would be to land at NCAA D-3, ACHA Club, or, if still age eligible, move up to NAHL or NCDC.   
Pay-to-play junior leagues in United States: 
1. NA3HL (Tier 3, 36 teams in 17 states)
2. USPHL Premier (Not classified, teams in 20+ states) 
3. Eastern Hockey League (Tier 3, teams in Northeastern states)
4. Western States Hockey League (Not classified, teams in Western states)  

Do your homework on the leagues, teams and coaches.  Make a list of questions and talk with current players, parents and the coaching staff.  

My suggestion, to learn the level of skill needed to play in a respective league, is to attend games of teams in the different leagues.  If you live in Wisconsin, it will be easier than residents of most states.  Wisconsin is host to USHL teams in Green Bay & Madison, two NAHL teams-Chippewa Falls & Janesville, three NA3HL teams, and three USPHL Premier teams.  

On a final note, making it to juniors and into college hockey is a process. Stick with it and be determined.  One scout may not think highly of you, but do not be dissuaded.  The next scout may see something.   For example, during the fall of 2001 I was promoting my former Team Wisconsin player, NHL All-Star and Team USA Olympic Captain, Joe Pavelski, to a USHL scout.  

The USHL scout’s comment to me: “his feet are too slow.”        

about the author

Matt Carey has been involved with hockey for nearly 45 years as a player, coach at U8 through Tier 1 midget major, founder of Team Wisconsin, USA Hockey Coaching Education Clinic Presenter & Evaluator for District Camps, and parent of youth hockey players.

He grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and currently resides in Colorado.

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