Junior hockey is the highest level of amateur hockey in North America. It is the last level players play before jumping to pro, or in some instances collegiate hockey. Hockey is unique among sports in that its junior level is independent of school, and that its highest level, the NHL, typically chooses players outside of a collegiate system.
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Characteristics Unique To Junior Hockey
- Not affiliated with any educational institutions–players play on teams within leagues that exist simply to develop hockey players
- Team can be privately owned or community owned. Teams usually bear the community’s or region’s name
- Leagues and teams exist on both sides of the border, in Canada and the United States. Some leagues have teams in both countries
- Players typically move away from as teenagers in order to play it
- Players do not make a formal salary while playing (though some leagues pay a stipend)
- Arenas at highest levels are 3500 – 6000 seats, with some being up to 10, 000 in the largest cities. At lower levels, attendance ranges in the dozens to hundreds.
- Players can receive college scholarships and pro contracts without playing college hockey
- Quite rare for a North American player to “make it” in hockey without playing it
Examples of Players Who Have Played Junior Hockey
- Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Patrick Roy
- Sidney Crosby, Dustin Byfuglien, John Scott
- Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Carey Price
How Old You Have To Be To Play Junior Hockey
As a rule, junior hockey players can be 16 to 20 years old.
However, the vast majority of above average players do not start until 17 years old. The typical player starts at 18. Few players start at 19 or 20. The most exceptional players will start at 16 at the highest levels.
It is difficult to say what is the right age to start junior hockey.The rookie age for most players will largely depend on the level and location. At some levels, such as the Major Junior, a player should start at 16 or 17 in order to meet their NHL draft at the end of 17. At other levels, such as most Junior A leagues, players who receive NCAA scholarships will start at 17 and often 18.
In all but the lowest levels, players must be at least 16. This age rule is instituted for player safety, player development (ensuring ice time) and to not rob AAA leagues of all players.
The 3 Tiers Of Junior Hockey
Junior hockey has three tiers.
Tier I Junior Hockey
The CHL leagues, also known as “Major Junior” leagues, exist regionally in Canada. The winner of each league faces off in a national tournament at the end of the year known as the Memorial Cup. The best players in these leagues get drafted to the NHL. These leagues also have drafts of their own for bantam or midget players, the player’s age depending on the league. All leagues have protected lists. These leagues offer scholarship packages to any accredited Canadian post secondary institution or an American player’s home state, and these scholarships are independent of hockey and are guaranteed once received. These leagues nullify a player’s NCAA eligibility. Players receive a few hundred dollars each month as a stipend and receive free equipment. The tryouts in these leagues are invitation only.
The USHL is the only tier I league in America. It has teams generally in the Mid-West. The players in this league get drafted to the NHL, and the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) plays in the league. This league has a two-part draft. This leagues gets the vast majority of its players athletic scholarships to NCAA schools. Players do not receive money in this league but do get free equipment. The tryouts in this league are invitation only.
It is important to note that Americans and Canadians can play in any of these leagues. It costs nothing to play in these leagues, including free billeting.
If your son plays in these leagues he is legitimately under the eyes of NHL scouts every night and absolutely among the best junior players in the world.
Tier II Junior Hockey
Leagues: BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, NOJHL, CCHL, OJHL, LHJQ, MHL, NAHL
Tier II is the middle tier of junior hockey. However, some players chose to play it over tier I, specifically those in Canada.
Typically, each league covers a non-overlapping region of Canada, generally each region being a province (except in Ontario where there are four leagues). The NAHL covers all of the United States from Alaska to Washington to Texas to Minnesota to Pennsylvania.
In Canada, players choose tier II because this is the highest level they can play while maintaining NCAA eligibility. There is a great disparity between the leagues. For example, the BCHL has almost as many players as the WHL ranked by NHL Central Scouting in 2015-16 mid-season rankings. It has well over 100 players committed to scholarships. By contrast, leagues like the MHL and NOJHL struggle to get a single scholarship. Ironically, more often than not at the national tournament, known as the RBC Cup, the winning team does not come from a league with the most scholarships. Players in these leagues do not get paid and may or may not receive free equipment or billets. Some leagues are pay-to-play. Most aren’t.
The NAHL in America gets a large amount of scholarships, in the upper half of the continent’s tier II leagues. There are also NHL draft picks from this league. Players in this league do not get paid, but do get equipment. Parents must cover billeting costs but everything else is billed to the team, i.e. there are no fees.
The SJHL, MJHL, CCHL, MHL and NAHL all have drafts. Most leagues have protected lists.
The spring training camps in these leagues are often invitation only with many invitations sent in the spring. The fall training camps are often invitation only.
If you son plays in certain leagues in this category he will under the eyes of NHL scouts every night, just not as many as tier I. He most definitely will have a shot at an NCAA scholarship if he is in the right league.
Tier III Junior Hockey
Tier III junior hockey is the lowest level of junior hockey. All tier III leagues are NCAA eligible.
In Canada, tier III is mostly an afterthought due to their being so many tier II leagues. That said, there are around five leagues, located in B.C. and Ontario, that can be used as stepping stones for midget-aged players to reach Junior A. These leagues receive virtually no Division I NCAA scholarships.
In the USA, tier III gains more attention. The top leagues—I’m speaking strictly by the number of scholarships garnered—are the USPHL (Premier Division) and to a smaller extent the EHL. Some scouts and coaches have told me that they believe the USPHL Premier stronger than the NAHL. Often enough, the decision to play in these leagues is one of location and proximity to home.
The other leagues at the tier III level do not receive division I NCAA scholarships. Midget-aged players can potentially use them as a stepping stone to higher levels of junior, but if a player is already junior age—I’m referring to 18 to 20 year olds—these leagues are likely dead ends other than division III scholarships.
Most of these leagues are pay to play, and certainly all are in America. Players often are not provided with equipment and must supply their own. In America, there are fees for billeting. In Canada, billet fees are dependent on the organization.
Lastly, there is the GMHL in Canada. It operates independently of Hockey Canada. From what scouts and coaches, inside and outside of the league, have told me, the best teams could compete in an average Canadian tier II league. The worst teams are worse than the best Junior B teams.
Some leagues have drafts and protected lists, but they are not nearly as meaningful—arguably, they are recruiting tools that prematurely bind players to teams—as at higher levels of junior. Tryouts in these leagues are invitation only and open invite depending on the team and league.
If you son plays at this level he should work hard to move up to a higher tier because that is where the good scholarships are given. I recommend players do not look at tier III as a long-term plan.
Differences Between Major Junior, Junior A, Junior B
The terminology of Major Junior, Junior A and Junior B confuse parents. The confusion exists because they mean different things to Canadians and Americans.
This strictly refers to the CHL leagues: WHL, OHL, QMJHL. Plain and simple.
If you want to play Major Junior, you have to play in your home territory.
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Territories; Minnesota to Texas and westward, and Alaska
Ontario; encompassing Wisconsin to Louisiana to Florida to New York
Quebec, Maritimes; New England
For most intents and purposes, you cannot switch territories. You make a team in your territory or you don’t play Major Junior.
The age range for Major Junior is 16 to 20. Major Junior teams usually take only exceptional two 16 year old players each season.
The major advantaged perceived in Major Junior is that it is the most direct path to the NHL. Players play 70+ games per year, which is quite similar to an NHL schedule. Traditionally, the best NHL draft picks in North America came from this league (though many now come from the NCAA).
The disadvantage perceived often at this level is that it blows a player’s NCAA eligibility–if a player players in the CHL he can no longer get an NCAA scholarship. To compensate for this, the CHL leagues offer guaranteed scholarships to their players on a per capita of years played in the league basis.
This refers to the USHL and all tier II leagues and many of America’s tier III leagues.
The distinction of Junior A means the league is NCAA eligible. Even though the USHL is a tier I league, it gets Junior A classification.
A point of confusion for some parents in Ontario is that some people, especially from the old school, still refer to the OHL and Junior A, and the OJHL as Junior B.
A player can start Junior A at 16 years old; however, there are restrictions:
- Canadian players must stick in their home province if still midget-aged. For example, an midget-aged player in Kenora Ontario–even though his team is in the Manitoba Midget AAA league–cannot play in Manitoba’s Junior A MJHL until he is 18.
- Canadian players can go to another province or to the United States once they turn 18, as long as they have not signed a regular roster card with a team previously
- American players can play in any American league at 16 years old, regardless of what state they call home. American players cannot play in a Canadian Junior A league until they are 18.
- Players on both sides of the border can quit a team in one country and jump the border to another without requiring a trade. However, this is greasy and getting a release from the first team could be a prolonged process.
Junior A players start playing at different ages. It often depends on the league and the local Midget AAA eco-system.
This refers to Canada’s tier III leagues; however, Canadians rarely use the terminology of “tiers,” especially when referring to tier III.
It also refers to the lowest levels of tier III in the United States.
I have seen Junior B players start as young as 14. Some still do start at 15 when AAA is unavailable to them. Most players are 16 – 20.
As a note: there are also Junior C leagues on both sides of the border, but they are largely irrelevant in the context of this article.
As a parent or players, understand that tier I could mean Major Junior or Junior A, and that Junior A could mean tier I, tier II or tier III.
Pay-to-Play vs. Non Pay-to-Play
These leagues are definitely not pay to play: WHL, OHL, QMJHL, USHL
These leagues are not pay to play*: BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, NOJHL, LHJQ, MHL.
*It is worth noting that some of these do not advertise as not pay-to-play but member teams may charge billet fees or other fees. Often this is not the case, but it does happen in weaker leagues.
These leagues are not pay to play but have billet costs: NAHL
These leagues are pay to play: CCHL, OJHL, Canadian “Junior B” leagues, USPHL (Premier, Elite, Mid-West), EHL, NA3HL and NA3 East, The Met (MJHL), NPHL, RMJHL, WSHL.
General fees for pay-to-play leagues can range from as low as $2, 500 CDN in Canada, up to $10, 000 – $15, 000 USD in America. It all depends on the league and the organization. What these fees cover varies per team, but for the most part it will include travel and meals on the road, ice time and the coaching staff. Billets may not be included. Again, what is inclusive and exclusive of the price varies. The leagues to be particularly vigilant of are the tier III leagues. Know what you’re paying for.
At the tier I level, equipment will be provided head to toe, and players may be mandated to wear certain brands. Teams will provide sticks and will order them in from specific companies or sponsors.
At the tier II level, outer equipment, i.e. visible gear, and sometimes inner equipment will be provided. Most times, equipment choice is limited due to sponsorship deals with companies. All equipment is adequate for protection.
At the tier III level, nothing is provided, though fees may play into an equipment pool.
Goalies usually get to choose what equipment they wear within a range of gear at the highest levels, direct pro-stock from companies at the team’s expense. At the lower levels, goalies provide their own gear.
How To Get Scouted For Junior Hockey
Midget AAA is the top feeder of players into junior hockey at all levels. In Canada, each province has AAA leagues that mirror the Junior A leagues around them. It is almost never a bad option to play AAA. It is also exceedingly rare for a midget player to receive an NCAA scholarship—it just doesn’t work that way in Canada.
In the United States, the Tier One Elite Hockey League (T1EHL) AAA teams at the U-16 level, and to a lesser extent the U-18, not only get players scholarships but also forward them on to junior teams. Another very good league is in the High Performance Hockey League (HPHL), which is smaller in size than the T1EHL. There are many other so called “AAA” leagues in America, but talent-wise these two are where the best junior players comes from. Some exceptional AAA players in America will get scholarships before playing junior.
Prep School & Hockey Academies
Prep Schools, or the one referred to here at least, are the private schools in New England. This is still the most efficient route for top midget-aged players to receive a scholarship, especially to top-notch schools in the area. As a parent local to the area, if your goal is NCAA and you have the means to do it, I actually recommend this route over junior.
Hockey Academies are basically the Canadian equivalent of prep schools, but they are less focused on academics and prestige, and more focused on just being a hockey centric school. There has been a huge rise quite recently in these schools, such as the Canadian Sports School Hockey League. They also exist in Ontario. They are certainly a viable route to get your son to all levels of junior hockey
Junior B Hockey
Junior B, specifically the VJHL, PJHL, KIJHL, GOJHL and CCHL2, can be used as a stepping stone for a midget-aged player to jump to Junior A by the time he is 18. They should not be the route to a scholarship though.
It is becoming more common for players to leave a prep school for junior hockey
High School Hockey
High school hockey is still a preferred choice for players in Minnesota. There is simply a history of it. Top schools produce NCAA players every year and even some NHL draft picks.
While HSH does exist almost everywhere, it is not a great option. Some players in Michigan and Eastern parts of the United States will squeeze out scholarships through HSH and others will use it to jump to junior. However, it is not the top option in most states, and it is largely irrelevant to junior hockey in Canada.
Players can get scouted from identification camps, especially by teams that are starving for players.
I also get a ton of questions from kids who are playing bantam and midget AA and house league. If you’re one of these players, this article and video is for you.
Junior Hockey Training Camps (Tryouts)
A “Training Camp” is hockey speak for a tryout weekend.
Regardless of whether or not a player is protected, he can still attend a training camp. There are two kinds of camps teams have:
- Spring Camps–these are often for evaluating prospects, not so much for picking the final roster
- Fall Camps–these are the actual tryouts for the team
It is important to note that tier II and tier III teams will have both of these types of camps. Tier I teams usually just have one camp because their <ahref=”http://juniorhockeytruth.com/junior-hockey-recruit/”>recruiting process is so well honed. They are also the most attractive option for players in most cases, so tier I teams have no trouble with finding prospects.
As a general guideline, the better the league or team, the harder it will be to get invited to a camp. In Major Junior or the USHL, there will be more protected players in camp than free agents. In tier III, teams will invite as many players as possible since many teams have trouble filling rosters while charging hefty player fees.
The most organic way to get an invitation to a camp is to get scouted and invited. After that, players will often receive mass invites to lower level teams. Players looking to get invited to a certain camp or camps can contact teams as long as they not protected by another team in the same league.
What To Expect At A Training Camp
The biggest difference at a hockey training camp compared to minor hockey is that it is all scrimmages, rarely having skill based session or evaluations (except perhaps for goalies). There will be referees on the ice and players will be assigned to teams. Fitness testing often occurs at fall camps and can be quite rigorous at higher levels.
Camps are usually three to four days long, culminating with an inter-squad game of top players and perhaps exit interviews with the coaching staff. At fall camps, players may be cut throughout the weekend. Also, the final team is often not selected at the camp. The final cuts will be made over the exhibition season or even the beginning of the regular season. Often too, players will be signed to cards, like contracts for junior players, long before the fall camp begins.
It is important to note that some leagues, such as the USHL, have their “fall” camp in mid-summer.
Junior Hockey Drafts, Protected Lists, Tenders & Affiliate Cards
Prospects can become property of a team a couple of different ways. Their “rights” can be “picked up” and “dropped” through:
Some leagues have drafts, some don’t. The only level where every league has a draft is tier I. These are often the drafts most people talk about and consider newsworthy, so these are the ones we’ll break down.
The WHL Draft happens at the end of a player’s 14 year old season. This is their last year of bantam. Only players who are from WHL territory can be drafted.
If a player is passed up in the draft, they can be protected by a team a week later, up to and including their 20 year old season.
The vast majority of players will play Midget AAA the next season. A smaller percentage will play at other elite levels.
The OHL Draft or “Priority Selection” happens at the end of a players 15 year old season. This is their first year of midget or “Minor Midget”. Only players from OHL territory can be drafted.
If a player is passed up in the draft, they re-enter the draft the next season (though very few players are chosen their second time around). If a player is passed up in two successive drafts, they can be protected by a team.
Top players will jump straight into the league the next season. Most players will return to midget.
The QMJHL Draft happens at the end of a players 15 year old season. Only players from QMJHL territory can be drafted.
Top players will jump straight into the league the next season. Most players will return to midget.
The USHL has two drafts, both happening the same weekend.
The first phase is a U-17 draft for prospects. Any player “Major Midgets” or younger can be chosen. Most times, these players will continue to play midget for another season.
The second phase is open to any junior aged players who are not currently protected by a USHL team. In other words, it is a draft for players already playing junior at other levels. This draft is to help rejuvenate rosters as a team’s graduated players leave holes in the roster for the upcoming season.
Plenty of tier II leagues have drafts. These drafts exist for different reasons, the most prominent of which is an equitable recruiting process between teams. However, they also serve as a recruiting tool–a player who is drafted can then only be courted by one team. This is especially true at the lowest levels of junior where pay-to-play schemes are in place.
A league with a draft is not necessarily better or worse than a league without one. Some leagues have them, some don’t.
*Being drafted to a CHL league does nothing to affect a player’s NCAA eligibility.
A protected list is the stable of players whose rights belong to one team in one league. This usually includes players on the active roster as well as prospects; however, in some leagues there is a prospect list and an active list.
To be placed on a protected list, a player merely is scouted by a team, the team emails the league office, an email is sent out league wide to see if any lower ranked teams are interested in the player (in some leagues), and then a player is said team’s property. The player will get a call from the team.
Protected lists exist at all levels and in most leagues. In Canada they are kept private. In America, they are made public.
It is important to note that any player who is drafted is automatically protected; in actuality, drafts are the first day a player can be protected.
Tenders are somewhat like protected lists, and they only exist in American junior leagues. When a player signs a tender he is saying that he will only play for the team who tendered him, within the league in which said team plays. Likewise, the team only has a small amount of tenders, so it is quite judicious in how they offer them.
A tender is much like a promissory note that the team will take the player the next season. Tenders are also used for prospects, not junior aged players, so they are much like a letter of intent vis a vis the NCAA or prospect protected list vis a vis Canadian junior leagues.
Affiliate cards are cards that midget-aged players sign before they actually play a game with a junior team. The hitch is that these cards designate the player as an affiliate (and “AP”), not as a full-time roster player. The player stays with his regular team, obviously one that is a level below the team to which he is being called up, but comes up for one game at a time. Typically, the player can only play a limited number of games with the big club.
An affiliate card has no bearing on a player’s relationship with the parent club so far as guaranteeing the player anything in the future. It often, however, serves as a way for young players to get experience/test driven. It also helps to build a relationship between player and team. Getting AP’ed is a good thing.
Being drafted or on being placed on a protected list does not ensure a player will play for the team. It simply ensures the player cannot play for another team in that league.
At the Junior A level, players can have their rights protected in one league but decide to play in another league. Once a player signs a card in one league, they would require a trade to play on another team in the same country.
College & University Hockey: Division I, Division III, CIS
Division I College Hockey
This is the absolute best level of collegiate hockey. This is the level where athletic scholarships are awarded. A simple way to decipher what a “div one” team is, is to know that division one hockey is only for NCAA Divison I teams. If you don’t hear those words together, it’s probably not division I.
Division I players definitely can jump to the NHL, European or minor league pro hockey.
Division III College Hockey
Colloquially, “div three” refers to more than just NCAA Division III hockey. It can also refer to any conference calling itself division two. It can also refer to the ACHA. Long story short, if isn’t called NCAA Division, the only assistance or scholarships offered to a player is academic. These scholarships fall under different rules than Division I scholarships.
Division III players can play pro hockey, but it would be at a very low level of pro.
Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS)
The CIS members conferences are the CIS West, OUA and AUS.
Canadian university hockey is largely composed of ex-CHL players and top flight Junior A players. Most players are Canadian, but some Americans play at this level because it affords them a chance to continue player without going pro.
The CIS doesn’t give out scholarship, per se. Rather, the CHL leagues give its graduating players scholarships based on the length of time they played in their respective CHL league. Junior A graduating players, in theory, should not receive money from their teams, but it happens in some instances.
CIS players can jump to high levels of pro, but most start out at lower levels. It is also common for CIS players to go to Europe.
Your Son’s First Step Toward Junior
This is junior hockey in a nutshell. The above is written to help you get a grounding in the different options available to your son. If you have more questions or want more information, start with my book Junior Hockey Truth. It’s the roadmap to junior hockey, including how to get scouted, what happens once you’re in camp and what your son can expect as he prepares to play junior. You can BUY THE BOOK here.
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