Understanding Junior Hockey: The Path to the NHL

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.

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.

What are the levels of Junior Hockey?

The first thing to remember in trying to understand Junior Hockey is that there are two different governing bodies in North America. 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, 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.

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.

Canadian Major Junior & Junior Hockey Leagues

In Canada, we have the Canadian Hockey League (the CHL) and the Canadian Junior Hockey League (the CJHL).

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

Inside the CHL, the highest level of Junior Hockey in Canada, are three separate leagues. 

The 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).

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.

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.

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.

Leagues inside the CJHL

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.

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, there is several tiers of Junior Hockey. 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

Other Junior Hockey Leagues 

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.

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