As a kid, I was a rabid Badgers hockey fan. They won three NCAA titles while I was in youth hockey. Like many, NCAA D1 was the only college level on my radar. It is the most visible because the Frozen Four is nationally televised and some teams represent colleges that are household names. However, only about 1 in 10 college hockey teams in U.S. are NCAA D1.
College hockey is categorized as varsity or club. Varsity teams are governed by NCAA and club by ACHA. Whether it’s NCAA or ACHA, all teams are part of a college. Therefore, academic requirements must be met for college admission and team eligibility. Let’s breakdown the two categories from most roster opportunities to least.
1. Club College Hockey (American Collegiate Hockey Association or ACHA)
The ACHA has over 400 teams in U.S., and they are located in every region of the country. Approximately 7 out of every 10 college hockey players in U.S. are members of ACHA.
ACHA teams are not varsity. They are a club sport at the college. Teams are classified from highest to lowest as D1, D2 or D3. The top teams are highly skilled, have good game attendance and may resemble NCAA D3 programs. However, the disparity between the best in D1 to the weakest in D3 is significant. There are 70 D1 teams, 185 D2 and 150 D3. There are no hockey scholarships in ACHA. Most teams require player fees. Some teams are well funded, so player fees vary greatly between colleges.
An ACHA D1 coach told me he only recruits junior leagues and many of his freshman arrive when they age out of juniors*. That is not the case at every team, and definitely not for D3. Opportunities to go directly from high school to ACHA exist. For more information visit achahockey.org.
2. Varsity College Hockey. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
NCAA only has championships for D1 & D3. There are 7 D2 programs but they operate like D3, no scholarships, so we will include them with D3.
A. Division 3 (D3).
Wisconsin has 11 D3 programs: UW Eau Claire, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout, Superior, Concordia, Lawrence, Marian, MSOE, St. Norbert, and Northland.
Minnesota has 10 D3.
Illinois has two D3.
In U.S., there are 92 teams, 85 D3 & 7 D2. Teams are only in 13 states, primarily upper Midwest and Northeast. There are no teams in Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.
There are no hockey scholarships to play NCAA D3. The normal route to D3 is via junior hockey. Roster spots are difficult to earn. The top D3 teams are really good and on par with bottom D1. If the goal is to play after high school, it would be educational to attend D3 games. For Wisconsin residents, you have plenty of options nearby.
B. Division 1 (D1). NCAA D1 is the pinnacle of college hockey. UW Badgers are the only D1 program in Wisconsin. Minnesota has five D1 programs. Illinois has zero.
There are 61* D1 teams located in 19* states, primarily upper Midwest and Northeast. Only 6 of the 61 teams are located outside of Central and Eastern Time Zones.
This is the only level of college hockey in North America that provides hockey scholarships. Canadian colleges do not offer athletic scholarships, so NCAA D1 attracts players from Canada and Europe. Consequently, it is hard to make a team and scholarships are scarce. Each NCAA D1 team has a maximum of 18 scholarships, but most programs have 25 to 30 players. Therefore, colleges often divide scholarships. For example, player A receives 25%, player B 25% and player C 50% scholarship. Financial aid may also be available.
The vast majority of D1 players played juniors prior to college. USHL is the best junior league in North America for producing NCAA D1 players. In addition, NAHL, BCHL, AJHL, NCDC, among others, send players to D1 programs.
Unlike other sports, the norm is to play one to three years of hockey after high school before going to college. It is a long and winding road to college hockey.
My recommendation is to learn the routes before you begin the journey.
*For info regarding junior hockey, please read Junior hockey the bridge to college hockey and Canadian juniors on wisconsinprephockey.net.
*With Alabama Huntsville, D-1 has 61 teams in 19 states. UAH dropped hockey but got funding for the 2020/21 season.
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.