Photo: Chad Phillips Photography
If you are like many Minnesotans, you likely do not read The Junior Hockey News. We as Minnesotans are involved in our community-based hockey programs and high schools, so we pay less attention to the various junior leagues.
Anyway, The Junior Hockey News has ranked all the junior leagues, top to bottom. Some interesting opinions have been fielded by their publication.
First, they rank the USHL as the best junior league. Not the Ontario or Western major junior leagues, Canadian leagues long thought to be the best in the world. In large part, they site the USHL as best because of the impressive number of players who go on to sign NHL deals. The USHL is a league where the vast majority of players move on to Division I colleges. Amazing league, in my opinion (and for full disclosure, where I spent my playing/development time, coached and managed for many years.)
For me, I can’t help but think about the league’s pioneers, many of whom have passed from this world. I hope pioneers like Ron Woodey, Bob Somers, Dr. Harry Brown and Harry Sundberg are looking down upon us and feel a great sense of accomplishment. At a time where in Minnesota high school hockey was king, they still saw a need for the development time afforded by junior hockey. And of course, the league has continued to progress to where it is today.
The league initially had a couple different names, including the Midwest Junior Hockey League. The MJHL eventually merged with the USHL, which was a senior league at the time. Upon the merger, the USHL transitioned to a junior league. I was lucky enough to play in the league during the transition. It was a rough and tumble experience to say the least.
So many great hockey people have contributed to the success of the USHL. The league has had some great leaders, like David Tyler and Gino Gaspirini, and many others who deserve recognition as well. To see the league these many years later rise to such stature is rewarding for many. The players who get to participate are the beneficiaries. Think about it, a league where the vast majority move on to Division I colleges, and then many to the NHL. Quite the league.
Another major point in The Junior Hockey News rankings, for me anyway, is they have the North American Hockey League (NAHL) as the top Tier II league in North America. The NAHL is rated above the BCHL (British Columbia), AJHL (Alberta) and MJHL (Manitoba). This is no surprise to me, as I have long held this opinion myself. The number of players in the NAHL that are moving on to Division I and III schools is impressive. While I think there is a case to be made for an American kid to enter junior hockey in Canada – to challenge this Canadian “barrier” – I still think the NAHL is the better option.
The NAHL is actually a bit older than their USHL counterpart. The USHL attracts young, very talented young players. The NAHL attracts the slightly older, sometimes passed over by the USHL, but still very good players. The slightly older group of players fosters a bit more mature grittiness that serves the league well.
The NAHL Showcase, in which all the league’s teams participate, is this September in Blaine, Minn. I recommend those young players with aspirations to move on past high school, to go watch and experience the level of play offered by the NAHL.
Not to be forgotten in the USPHL, a Tier II league with several divisions that ranks among the top leagues at any level in North America. The USPHL has grown to over 60 organizations from across the U.S.
If you are going to play past high school, you are going to, with a rare exception, be required to play junior hockey. Get out and get educated.
A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Kevin Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His book “Leading From the Ice” is available at amazon.com.