Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Explanation of Youth, Junior, College, Minors, and NHL Hockey levels

For those of you in more hockey literate geographical areas this article isn't needed. Feel free to stop reading now. For the rest of you (I'm looking at you guy in Starbucks talking about the minor league Portland Winterhawks) this might be useful.

I'm going to be talking about the different levels of organized hockey, from the youth level through juniors/college and into the pros.

Players begin their hockey careers playing youth hockey. In the States (sorry Canada) this means:
Mites 8 & under
Squirts 10 & under
PeeWees 12 & under
Bantams 14 & under
Midget Minor 16 & under
Midget Major 18 & under

You'll notice there are no lower ends to the age limits. Potentially you could have a 10 year old playing at the Bantam level. As a practical matter this doesn't happen but I know that question will be asked. Within youth programs there will be different levels of competition at each age group. House teams that are purely recreational. Select teams made up of the best players from across the House teams. Tier teams that are highly competitive and spend most of there time travelling and facing top teams from other cities, or regions. Tier I is the highest level of competition followed by Tier II. Each age level will have it's own House/Rec, Select, and Tier programs.

Very highly skilled hockey players may get the opportunity to play Junior hockey. Junior hockey is completely separate from Youth hockey. Junior hockey players are between the ages of 15 and 20. This is a very high level of amateur hockey. To make things easy for us Yanks to understand I'm going to put this in terms of college football:
Tier III Junior A, for example the North Pacific Hockey League (NorPac) compares to NCAA Division III college football (2010 National Champion Wisconsin-Whitewater)
Tier II Junior A, such as the North American Hockey League (NAHL) compares to NCAA Division I FCS college football (2010 National Champion Eastern Washington)
Tier I Junior A, Which is where you'll find the United States Hockey League (USHL) compares to NCAA Division I FBS college football (2010 National Champion University of Auburn, ugh, that hurt, GO DUCKS)

After players "graduate" from these Junior leagues they may be able to continue playing at the NCAA level. College hockey is growing in the States and many players are being drafted by NHL teams. In 2006 - 2007 25% of players in the NHL came from the NCAA's.

So that's it for the amateurs right? Well not exactly. There is another level of Juniors called Major Juniors. It's the Canadian Hockey League. The CHL is made up of three leagues; the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). These CHL teams are made up of players between the ages of 15 and 20 just like the other Junior leagues. By rights they are not paid, but they do receive a stipend of around $200 per month. The NCAA views this as being paid to play thereby making these players ineligible to play NCAA hockey. Many of the players in the CHL will be drafted by teams in the NHL. Currently the CHL provides about 50% of the players in the NHL.

That last sentence is the reason I roll my eyes when I hear people refer to the Winterhawks (a WHL team) as a minor league team. To spell it out for the guy in Starbucks, the Portland Winterhawks play in the most elite "amateur" hockey league in the world. Calling it minor league would be exactly the same as calling the University of Oregon football team a minor league team. Minor league teams are where adults who aren't good enough to make "The Show" play professionally after their amateur careers are over. This brings us to...

The Pro's.
In North America there are several levels of pro hockey. The minor leagues include:
the Central Hockey League (CHL not to be confused with the Major Junior CHL)
the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL)
the American Hockey League (AHL, these teams are often directly affiliated with NHL teams. Players will move between an AHL team and the NHL parent club depending on ability and roster needs.)
the National Hockey League (NHL)

That's the short version. I'm leaving out almost everything. There are a ton of other leagues around the world that I haven't touched on at all. If anyone wants to take me to task for anything I've put down here feel free. That's what the comments section is for.

Good Night, and Good Luck

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