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 7 teams in the Chicago/Illinois area – the Tier I teams are the Chicago Steel in Bensenville and the Bloomington Thunder. Tier II is represented by the Springfield Jr. Blues. The Tier III Chicago Junior Bulldogs, Decatur Blaze, Chicago Cougars, and Peoria Mustangs round out the Tier III options in the 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 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. The Chicago Steel and Bloomington Thunder play in this league.
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. Springfield Jr. Blues play in this league.
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. The Tier III landscape has changed drastically, especially out East and here in the Midwest, with leagues merging. 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 Chicago Cougars, Peoria Mustangs, Decatur Blaze and Chicago Jr. Bulldogs play at this level.
The various Tier III Leagues include:
NA3HL – North American 3 Hockey League: The NA3HL comprises teams from Michigan, Missouri, Montana, ND, Wisconsin, 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. The Chicago Bulldogs and Peoria Mustangs play in this league. Additionally, the NA3EHL has been formed as part of the NA3HL. This is more of a feeder program for the NA3HL and another opportunity for players to learn the Junior Hockey landscape. Teams are traditionally located in the Northeast.
RMJHL – Rockey Mountain Junior Hockey League is the newest entrant into the Junior Hockey fabric. This league is Colorado based for now. One would assume it is a lower level Tier III league for now, but time will tell.
NPJHL – Northern Pacific Junior Hockey League: The NPJHL comprises teams from Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, 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 Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, District of Columbia, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Another great stepping stone to higher level juniors.
EHL – Eastern Hockey League: The EHL 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: The USPHL 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. Most recently the USPHL has merged the MNJHL into the USPHL-Midwest. Similar to the NA3HL, this division is a great local option for kids trying to break into Junior Hockey.