Understanding Junior Hockey: The Path to the NHL

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What is junior hockey?

Junior hockey is generally considered “amateur” hockey, as the players are not considered professional. In some cases, however, Junior hockey leagues (Major Junior hockey specifically, the CHL in Canada) are not viewed as amateur leagues. Understanding levels of junior hockey leagues is confusing and in this guide, we’re going to unpack every level of junior play. Junior Hockey is very different than it’s youth hockey counterpart, for more on the levels of youth hockey check out our guide to youth hockey levels.

With dozens of different Junior Hockey Leagues throughout North America and hundreds of Junior Hockey teams, understanding it all can be a bit of a challenge to those not familiar with the system. In this article, we’re going to do our best effort to clearly explain the levels of junior hockey, as well as the various junior hockey leagues throughout the USA and Canada.

Since writing this, I’ve still been getting the question of, what is the best junior hockey league in North America? 

Ranked in order of which leagues send the most prospects to the NCAA Division 1 level, it would be the USHL. However, the two top junior leagues in Canada, the BCHL and AJHL, as well as the United States only sanctioned Tier 2 league the NAHL, are right behind it.

Junior Hockey leagues are feeder leagues designed to develop players for success at the next level. Not every league is perfect and some are much better than others. If your player or goalie has a shot at playing elite level Junior Hockey, take it.

If your son or daughter has been approached by a junior hockey team, the number one thing you can do to determine the leagues legitimacy is looking up advancement. Never heard of the league? That’s fine. For those unfamiliar, you may not have heard of a league like the SIJHL (Canadian Junior A, good league). Leagues that consistently send it’s ex-players to the CHL / NCAA / CIS / ECHL ranks and beyond are generally pretty quality leagues. As a rule of thumb, the advancement of players to leagues “above” their level of play is always a good thing.

Which Junior Hockey Leagues send the most players to Division 1 NCAA?

  1. USHL – United States Hockey League (Tier 1)
  2. NAHL – North American Hockey League (Tier 2)
  3. BCHL – British Columbia Hockey League (Canadien Junior A, Tier 1)
  4. AJHL – Alberta Junior Hockey League (Canadien Junior A, Tier 1)

Those are the 4 top Junior Leagues in North America, without question. When it comes to scouting goalies, or scouting hockey players in general, players who can separate themselves in these leagues have the best opportunity to move up to the next level. Statistically speaking, players playing in their age out year in one of these four leagues are more likely to go on to play NCAA than the CHL, as eligibility in the CHL has also run out.

Before we jump into this article, let’s take a look at leagues throughout the USA and Canada that are considered to be “Junior hockey”.

In Canada, Junior Hockey is considered to be one level above minor hockey. In the United States, Junior Hockey is above “Youth Hockey” (the equivalent of Minor Hockey in Canada) as well as High School or AAA hockey.

Junior Hockey Explained

As you’re reading this, keep in mind, there are many different levels of Junior Hockey in North America. If you’re being recruited to play in a Junior Hockey League, doing a little research is always a wise idea. Below, we’ve embedded a video from our friend Cooper Lukenda, talking about his experience playing Junior Hockey.

Cooper is an excellent resource for goalies, with a growing Youtube Channel. You can check out Cooper Lukenda on Youtube, here.

Junior Hockey Leagues in North America

The list below is a list of the top junior hockey leagues in North America. Note, the NCAA will allow players who have played in any league but the CHL to compete in the NCAA. The reason CHL players cannot play in the NCAA is because they’re given a stipend, thus forfeiting their NCAA eligibility. In Canada, players who have played in the CHL are still eligible to play University hockey, also known as “U Sports”. The list below is not broken down by “which league is best”, it is simply a list of the league.

Canadien Junior A hockey (which consists of 10 leagues) is comparable to the USHL and NAHL, though many would argue most USHL teams produce more NCAA D1 players than any CJHL team. To be fair, the top leagues in Canadien Junior A, those most comparable to the USHL / NAHL, are the BCHL and AJHL.

  1. CHL – Canadien Hockey League
    1. WHL – Western Hockey League
    2. OHL – Ontario Hockey League
    3. QMJHL – Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
  2. CJHL – Canadien Junior Hockey League (Junior “A”)
    1. BCHL – British Columbia Hockey League
    2. AJHL – Alberta Junior Hockey League
    3. SJHL – Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League
    4. MJHL – Manitoba Junior Hockey League
    5. SIJHL – Superior International Junior Hockey League
    6. NOJHL – Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League
    7. OJHL – Ontario Junior Hockey League
    8. CCHL – Central Canada Hockey League
    9. QJAAAHL – Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League
    10. MHL – Maritime Hockey League
  3. USHL – United States Hockey League (Tier 1)
  4. NAHL – North American Hockey League (Tier 2)
  5. NA3HL – North American “Tier 3” Hockey League (Tier 3)
  6. EHL – Eastern Hockey League “Tier 3”
  7. USPHL NCDC – United States Premier Hockey League “National Collegiate Development Conference” (Not Sanctioned)
  8. Other Junior Hockey Leagues – Canada Junior B / C, WSHL, and Others
  9. Canada Junior B, C, D

What are the levels of Junior Hockey?

An easy way to remember which level of Junior Hockey a league is in, is to break them down in this order.

  • Major Junior – the “CHL” contains three leagues, the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
  • Tier 1 – technically, Canadien Junior “A” leagues fall into this category, also, the USHL is Tier 1
  • Tier 2 – though there are some leagues within the CJHL, Canadien Junior A, that would be considered Tier 2 level, the main league in Tier 2 is the NAHL or Canadien Junior “B”.
  • Tier 3 – leagues like the NA3HL

Because there are many different junior leagues, it’s not easy to rank leagues against each other, especially when both the United States and Canada have different leagues. For example, in Canada, the CHL is known as the top “junior” league, even though the NCAA does not recognize CHL players as eligible for NCAA participation. The United States has a clear winner for it’s top junior league, the USHL, as it’s the only Tier 1 USA Hockey sanctioned junior league in the country.

Let’s make “how to understand junior hockey leagues” simple.  

The first thing to remember in trying to understand Junior Hockey is that there are two different governing bodies in North America. In the states, USA Hockey sanctions it’s leagues. In Canada, Hockey Canada does the same.

Typically, the best junior hockey leagues are those that fall under USA Hockey or Hockey Canada. This isn’t to say that a league not sanctioned by either is a bad league (see, Adam Vay, Minnesota Wild Prospect of the WSHL), but as a rule of thumb the baseline for how “good” a league is, is based off of it’s sanctioned counterpart. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada sanction the best leagues on the higher end.

That does not always mean that just because a junior hockey league is sanctioned by USA Hockey or Hockey Canada, that it’s the best league. The North American Tier 3 league is, skill wise, on the lower end as far as Junior leagues are concerned and it is sanctioned by USA Hockey.

Canada vs. USA Junior Hockey Leagues

Hockey Canada structures it’s Junior Hockey in a slightly different fashion than USA Hockey. HC runs several different tiers of Junior Hockey, including “Major Junior”. USA Hockey, on the other hand, runs three tiers of its Junior Hockey system. Tier’s 1-3.

Canadian Major Junior & Junior Hockey Leagues

In Canada, we have the Canadian Hockey League (the CHL) and the Canadian Junior Hockey League (the CJHL). As far as the NCAA is concerned here in the states, players who play in the CHL do not retain their amateur status. So, to compare apples to apples, the top leagues in the CJHL is often times thought of as comparable to the USHL / NAHL.

The CHL is labeled as “Major Junior” hockey and the CJHL is “Junior Hockey”.

What is Major Junior Hockey?

The CHL, or Canadien Hockey League, made up of 3 individual leagues in Canada, is known as “Major Junior” Hockey. It’s called “Major” Junior as it is a level above Canadien Junior A.

CHL – Canadien Hockey League

  1. Western Hockey League
  2. Ontario Hockey League
  3. Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

The Canadien Hockey League (CHL) has consistently been one of the top development leagues for the National Hockey League, though in recent years it has been rivaled by the NCAA. There are generally two routes to professional hockey in North America. The first is through Major Junior, the second through the NCAA.

Teams in the CHL play for their respective league trophies, with the winner of each league moving on to play for the Memorial Cup (one team from each league in the CHL plus a host city plays for the Memorial Cup).

WHL – The Western Hockey League

Comprised of 22 teams currently, the WHL was actually considered an “outlaw” league at first. The WHL, as you can imagine, holds most of it’s teams in Western Canada and the Northwest United States. Teams in the WHL play for the Ed Chynoweth Cup, with the winner moving to the Memorial Cup playoffs.

OHL – The Ontario Hockey League

Currently at 20 teams, the OHL could very well be the highest profile league in the CHL due to its geographical positioning in comparison to the WHL and QMJHL. Aside from comparing the number of NHL players this league has produced and the number of Memorial Cup victories for the OHL, there is no great comparison of it’s level of play to other CHL leagues. Any program that competes in the CHL in Canada is an elite program capable of sending players to the NHL and professional ranks. This league has several teams in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania.

QMJHL – The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

The QMJHL is currently the only CHL league that does not have a team located in the United States. The league spans eastern Canada and has an impressive list of players in the NHL (see, Corey Crawford) as well as retirees Patrick Roy, Mike Bossy, and Mario Lemieux.

Here’s some Major Junior FAQs. 

What is the AHL under 20 rule?

The AHL under 20 rule was created for CHL teams to attract top talent back. What it means is, if a player is under 20 does not make the NHL club, they must be sent back to the CHL team they’re currently with.

Can players under 20 play in the AHL?

Yes, they can. In fact, you only have to be 18 to play in the AHL. A longstanding agreement between the CHL and the AHL actually requires teams to send prospects who do not make the NHL club back to their CHL team, if they’re with one. So the “AHL Under 20” rule is actually only the “AHL Under 20 if you’re on a CHL team”, rule.

What is the age limit for Major Junior Hockey?

Players can play until they are 20 years old. As long as they do not turn 21 prior to the start of the season, you’re still eligible for the CHL, or Major Junior.

CJHL – Canadien Junior Hockey League (Junior “A”)

What is the age limit for the CJHL or Canadien Junior A?

20 years old. Actually, for most Junior Leagues, 20 is the cut off.

People often ask whether or not the CHL is better than the CJHL. The answer to that is not as straightforward as you might assume. On paper, the CHL produces more immediate, NHL ready talent. But that’s because in the CHL, you do not have an amatuer status. Once you complete your eligibility in the league, you must go on to play Professional hockey, or play U Sports in Canada (Canada’s version of the NCAA in the US).

Players who play Major Junior hockey in Canada are currently not eligible to play NCAA hockey in the United States. While they cannot play in the NCAA, CHL players who do not sign a professional contract can play in Canada’s version of the NCAA (U Sports / CIS).

Players that play in the CJHL, however, are eligible to play in the NCAA. The NCAA currently revokes eligibility for athletes that have played in the CHL.

Note: there are cases of CHL players playing in the NCAA (albeit rare)

Inside the CJHL, we’ve got several leagues. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on Junior A, but know that there is Junior B, etc. As far as development for play at the Collegiate (NCAA) level, the majority of Division 1 hockey players that play Junior Hockey in Canada play in just a few different leagues inside the CJHL.

For the most part, these leagues are ordered by the number of players they send to the Collegiate / Professional Ranks however several in the middle / bottom are up for debate.

BCHL – The British Columbia Hockey League

AJHL – Alberta Junior Hockey League

SJHL – Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League

MJHL – Manitoba Junior Hockey League

SIJHL – Superior International Junior Hockey League

NOJHL – Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League

OJHL – Ontario Junior Hockey League

CCHL – Central Canada Hockey League

QJAAAHL – Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League

MHL – Maritime Hockey League

United States Junior Hockey Leagues

When compared side by side with Canada, it would seem that with just a few junior hockey leagues, the United States and USA Hockey have almost nothing. In fact, that’s far from the case. USA Hockey has three tiers of junior hockey that they govern.

Tier 1: The USHL – United States Hockey League

One of the top development routes to NCAA D1 and beyond, the USHL continues to churn out prospects at a prolific rate.

Tier 2: The NAHL – North American Hockey League

Known as a league for the development of goaltenders in recent year, the NAHL bolsters a solid list of ex-players in the NHL and beyond. Teams continue to feed NCAA D1 programs with talent.

Tier 3: Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League

What is the difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 Junior Hockey?

Unlike Canada, The United States uses “Tiers” to discern competition level in it’s Junior Hockey system. USA Hockey sanctions just one Tier 1 league, the USHL and 1 Tier 2 league, the NAHL in the United States. In Canada, there are multiple levels of Junior hockey including Major Junior, Junior A, B, C and even D.

USHL – United States Hockey League (Tier 1)

Aside from Major Junior, which most don’t even consider to be Junior Hockey, the USHL is the best Junior League in North America. This league sends more players to Division 1 schools than any other league.

Can you play in the USHL if you’ve played in the CHL?

Yes. The only restriction for playing elsewhere if you’ve played in the CHL is playing in the NCAA. Per NCAA guidelines, players that play in the CHL lose their eligibility for NCAA hockey.

Can you go from the USHL to the CHL? 

Yes, you can. Be aware, that whenever you transition to the CHL, you may forfeit your NCAA eligibility.

NAHL – North American Hockey League (Tier 2)

The North American Hockey league is arguably the second best junior hockey league in North America.

Is the NAHL better than BCHL or AJHL?

Unless you had a situation where these two leagues played each other often, it’s tough to say. In terms of which league sends more players to the NCAA, the NAHL is consistently 2nd in North America behind only the USHL. But, that’s also due to the fact that it’s located in the United States.

NA3HL – North American Tier 3 Hockey League (Tier 3)

Still need more?

The NA3HL, a “feeder league” to the NAHL, is sanctioned by the North American Hockey league as well as USA Hockey, as one of the only Tier 3 Junior Hockey Leagues in North America.

EHL – Eastern Hockey League “Tier 3”

The EHL, also known as the Eastern Hockey League, is a Tier 3 junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey based on the East Coast of the United States.

Other Junior Hockey Leagues – Canada Junior B / C, WSHL, and Others

Getting exhausted yet?

The leagues we’ve covered here are just the ones sanctioned by the two major governing bodies of hockey in North America. There are a plethora of other junior leagues that exist and can offer opportunities for development.

It’s important to remember that hockey is a game we are lucky to play. If you’re playing and having fun doing it, does it matter where you play? Not everything is about success at the next level.

United States Premier Hockey League NCDC

The USPHL made a move to have a “free to play” portion of their league this season, calling it the National Collegiate Development Conference. This was denied by USA Hockey and the USPHL then pulled it’s entire status as being governed by USA Hockey.

The USPHL is an interesting league and the NCDC as well, they continue to send prospects to the College ranks. Especially for athletes on the Eastern side of the United States (NAHL / USHL located largely in Central US), the USPHL is an option.

Canada Junior B, C, D

Competition wise, Junior B hockey in Canada is generally thought of as a step down from Junior A. Many Junior B teams consist of players that will eventually go on to play Junior A. Due to the vast expanse of the country, not every city can support or afford to have a Junior A team. These cities often times host Junior B or Junior C competition.

Everything you need to know about Junior Hockey 

How are Junior Hockey Teams ranked?

Every individual Junior Hockey League has it’s own ranking system, many of which follow standard wins and losses and strength of schedule protocol. In cases where multiple leagues make up a greater league, strength of schedule and games versus teams in matching leagues is a major factor in ranking Junior Hockey Teams.

What level is Junior C hockey? 

Junior “C” Hockey is a level of Canadien Hockey that is thought of largely as a developmental league for Canadien Junior A and Junior B clubs. Junior C Hockey in Canada is popular in areas where towns are located close together geographically.