Junior hockey paves road to NCAA


photo credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel via wikimedia commons under creative commons license.

Providence College hockey Friars beat Cornell, 4-0, in the NCAA Hockey East Regional at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence, Rhode Island.

College athletics are a big part of a student-athlete’s career. NCAA sports such as football require that athletes go straight to college after high school, in most cases to compete as true freshmen.

College hockey, on the other hand, takes a different approach. The average age for a freshman playing college hockey is 20. People wonder why these college hockey players are so old. Coaches believe that college hockey players need to have additional hockey experience before playing at the college level.  Therefore, nearly all NCAA hockey players spend a year or two in junior hockey before beginning their college career.

There are several tiers of “junior” leagues in the United States. The United States Hockey League (USHL) is Tier One; the North American Hockey league (NAHL) which is in Tier Two; and Tier Three holds  several different leagues such as the USPHL (United States Premier Hockey league (USPHL) and the Eastern Hockey League (EHL).

Tier One and Tier Two leagues in the U.S. function somewhat like a junior college experience in preparing players for the collegiate level.  Those top tiers are “tuition free,” meaning players are not charged for ice time or travel.

Tier Three, on the other hand, is “pay to play” hockey.  Across the different leagues there are different cost structures, and some teams do give discounts to players who have been overlooked for whatever reason to play in the higher tiers. The average cost to play for a Tier Three team is around $5,000 to $7,000. Some teams charge up to $20,000.

It is rare for a Tier Three player to go on to play Divison One college hockey.

On the other hand, some Tier One players have the oprountiy to play professionally straight out of juniors, either at NHL or AHL (American Hockey League) levels.

For example, the first round pick of the 2019 NHL Draft was Jack Hughes. Hughes was a very talented player who played for the U18 team National Team Development Program (NTDP). The NTDP U18 team competes in the United States Hockey League, while the U17 team competes in the NAHL.

Therefore Hughes’ going to the NHL New Jersey Devils directly from juniors was quite an accomplishment.

Overall, junior hockey is just an opportunity for players either to hone their skills preparing for college, or for some, to go to a professional team.