If your skater has any interest in playing Junior Hockey now is the time to begin the process of deciding if your son should tryout and where to tryout. Most of the Tier II and III teams hold open evaluations in the early summer months. From these evaluations teams will invite a select few to return to their main camp, usually in July, for a formal tryout to see who makes the final roster. Tier I is typically an invitation only camp. Unlike youth hockey, just because your skater makes a team doesn’t mean they have a permanent spot on the roster. Teams can cut a skater at any time up to a certain date. This can leave a player with no place to play in the middle of a season. Again, know what you are signing up for. Let’s begin here in Illinois.
There are 2 teams in the Chicago area – the Tier I Chicago Steel in Bensenville, the Tier III Chicago Junior Bulldogs in Romeoville, and a little further away, the Wisconsin Rampage in Pleasant Prairie, WI. Additionally, there is a Tier III team in Peoria and a Tier II team in Springfield. We currently do not have a Tier II level team in the Chicago area. It is important for you to know more about the levels in Junior Hockey so that you and your son can make an informed decision.
There are really 3 reasons to play Junior Hockey – to extend playing in your youth hockey “career”, to prepare for playing in college, or to find an avenue to the professional ranks. Keeping with the theme of “threes”, there are also 3 Junior hockey levels in the U.S, USA Hockey’s Tier I, Tier II and Tier III.
Junior Tiers I and II are not pay to play – basically they are “free” for your son to play – provided he makes the team, of course! The air can get pretty thin when you get to the Junior Tier I and II levels as there are only 700 players among those ranks. All Tier III Junior teams are “pay to play” just like your youth hockey in Illinois. You foot the bill entirely.
Junior hockey is typically the move a player will make to attempt to advance their hockey career to the next level. Junior hockey is a buyer beware proposition. Not all Junior teams are created equal, so be sure to do your homework, talk to those that have been thru the process before sending your teenager off to parts unknown.
Tier I USHL:(United States Hockey League). The USHL is the only Tier I Junior League in the United States. Teams in this league cover all expenses for the player. Teams spread from Ohio to the west. This is the prime breeding ground for the leap to Division 1 and 3 college hockey.
Tier II NAHL:(North American Hockey League). The NAHL is the only Tier II Junior hockey league in the United States. This league covers all expenses except billeting fees for your player. The NAHL is also a prime place to be scouted for college play. Many kids from the NAHL also move to the USHL as a stepping stone to college.
Tier III: There are numerous Tier III leagues throughout the United States, and each league has its pros and cons. All Tier III is pay to play, similar to AAA. Recently the Tier III landscape has changed drastically especially out east. Some Tier III leagues are considered higher quality than others. The USPHL (see below) and the EHL have solid reputations for moving players to the next level.
The various Tier III Leagues include:
NA3HL: (North American 3 Hockey League) which comprises teams from Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa. The NA3HL is a Tier III feeder league for the NAHL and other higher level Tier II/III leagues. It is also an excellent place for kids that have aged out of youth hockey and want to keep playing prior to college. Many players from this league can advance to higher level juniors or move on to Division 3 or college club hockey. The Chicago Bulldogs play in this league.
MNJHL: (Minnesota Junior Hockey League). The MNJHL has two Divisions, Minnesota Teams and Great Lakes Teams (Wisconsin/Michigan/Indiana/Missouri). Similar to the NA3HL, it is a great local option for Illinois kids trying to break into Junior hockey.
NPJHL: (Northern Pacific Junior Hockey League) comprises teams from Washington, Montana, Wyoming and Vancouver. The NPJHL is a small five team league in the northwest. This league is similar to the NMJHL.
MJHL:(Metropolitan Junior Hockey League). The MJHL is a mid-level Tier III league in the northeast that includes teams from Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, District of Columbia, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Another great stepping stone to higher level juniors.
AWHL: (American West Hockey League) fields teams from Wyoming and Montana. The AWHL is a seven team league in the northwest. A mid-level Tier III league similar to NPJHL.
EHL: (Eastern Hockey League) comprises teams from Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. The EHL is a multi-team league in the northeast with access to 50-100 college programs in that part of the country. It is a mid-level Tier III league.
USPHL:(United States Premier Hockey League) has teams in Maine, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, New Hampshire, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Formerly the EJHL (Eastern Junior Hockey League) and the AJHL (Atlantic Junior Hockey League), the USPHL is considered the premier Tier III league in the country. It has several levels within the league, Premier, Elite and Empire, with the Premier being the top team for each club (think of it as AAA, AA and A at the youth level). This league also absorbed teams from the southeast into the league to create a complete league up and down the eastern seaboard.