There’s no one right way to make it to Division I college hockey. In fact, a survey of 2011-12 college rosters shows that more than a dozen junior or high school leagues sent players directly to the Division I ranks.
What does that tell us? It affirms a popular coach’s credo:
If you are good enough, it doesn’t matter where you are playing. We will find you.
From age 15 until players enroll in college they have a variety of different routes to take based on their priorities – including location, competition, educational goals and more.
There is simply no path that players “have to” follow to reach Division I. Experienced college coaches encourage players to challenge themselves wherever they choose to play and if they play well, they will receive attention from colleges.
‘Comes Back to the Kid’
“You have examples of so many different routes on our team alone,” veteran assistant coach Billy Powers of Michigan noted. “We’ve seen kids succeed from everywhere. It comes back to the kid and his passion and intangibles, not where he played.”
The top feeder leagues to college hockey are junior leagues in the U.S. (primarily the USHL, NAHL and EJHL), the various leagues that make up the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) and teams associated with schools (either prep schools or high schools). USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), which plays in the USHL, is also a rich source of college talent.
“A great thing about the leagues and teams at that level is the coaching young players get,” said Jeff Dwyer, College Hockey, Inc.’s Director of Education and Recruitment who played in prep school, college and pro hockey before coaching in the USHL. “All of those coaches have been involved with the college game. They know what it takes to reach the NCAA level and they have contacts with college coaches to help place their players.”
As Powers notes, his team – perennially one of the top teams in college hockey – is a great example of that diversity. Michigan’s four captains this season played at prep school, the NTDP, the USHL and the NAHL. Two of them spent three years playing Michigan high school hockey. The Wolverines’ freshman class includes three players who spent last season in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL).
Another great example is the list of finalists for the 2011 Hobey Baker Award. Eight leagues were represented among the 10 finalists (see box). Three of those leagues are Canadian (AJHL, BCHL, OJHL), demonstrating the ongoing influence of Canadian players in U.S. college hockey. This year Canadians make up roughly one-third of all Division I players.
Explore Your Options
Each different path offers unique benefits. Just as they would in looking at a university, a prospective player should examine their options and find the best fit for them and their family.
Junior hockey can provide the best level of competition for a player looking to transition to college hockey. As USA Hockey’s only Tier 1 junior league, the USHL is widely recognized as the highest level of junior hockey in the U.S., though the NAHL and EJHL send a significant number of players to college each year as well.
“We play fast, clean and tough hockey, and we’ll take anyone on,” USHL Commissioner Skip Prince wrote in a must-read open letter promoting his league. “We send players to the NHL … by way of college. And to board rooms and careers … by way of college. And to the best years of their lives. Our players go to class, and they work in the community, and they have a blast doing so, and they come out of our league ready for the next step – on the ice and off it.”
College coaches recognize the wealth of talent the USHL offers, but also know they need to recruit beyond its borders.
“The USHL most closely resembles Division I college hockey in terms of tempo and competitive level,” said Red Gendron, associate head coach at Yale and a pro, college and high school coaching veteran. “But the EJHL, prep school, Canadian leagues, they all offer terrific opportunities. Plenty of players come from those leagues and as coaches, we know we have to recruit everywhere.”
“If you can get to the national program [NTDP] or the USHL, that can be the best preparation, but we don’t pigeonhole kids and expect that they all play there,” Powers said. “We’ve seen first-hand that successful players come from all over.”
Popular Canadian Route
Canadian leagues that make up the Junior A CJHL have a long history of supplying Division I talent. The most prominent members of the CJHL from a college standpoint tend to be the OJHL, AJHL, BCHL, CCHL and MJHL, though there are 10 leagues in its membership and all have alums playing Division I. Those leagues offer excellent competition and allow Canadian players to stay close to home.
“We don’t have any overnight road trips,” OJHL Commissioner Marty Savoy notes. “That can be a big benefit for kids and their families. You can be home and in your own bed that night. These are pretty important years in a young man’s life, and that allows them to really concentrate on schooling and getting the marks they need to get a scholarship.”
The prep school atmosphere, in many ways, resembles college with students living in dorms and a heavy emphasis on academics.
“In prep school we’re one of the closest mirrors to the college hockey development model,” said Matt Herr, a Michigan graduate who now coaches prep school hockey at the Kent School. “We have a $1.3 million weight facility, and our guys are in their all fall with a strength and conditioning coach. We have a college-oriented schedule, playing two or three games a week. Our kids are combining hockey and education and really becoming good people.”
Consistent with each option is the exposure to college coaches. Between scouting trips, contacts with coaches and other connections, assistant coaches have vast knowledge of prospective student-athletes across the continent. In fact, keeping tabs on these different leagues is easier than ever before.
“The advent of the internet has made it much, much easier to do the initial work of identifying players,” said Gendron. “We can access stats, videos and articles, and it’s also very easy for kids to reach out to us. Between us collecting information and the prospective student-athletes providing information to us, it is infinitely easier to find players, regardless of where they play.”
Onus on the Player
In the end, where a player prepares for college matters less than the work they put in – both on and off the ice – in the years leading up to school.
“The real challenge for a young player is to challenge himself,” Gendron said. “You have to have a mindset of growth. Don’t worry about where you’re playing, or who you are playing for. You don’t need a coach to tell you if your shot isn’t hard enough – if you notice other players who are getting opportunities have better shots, maybe that’s something you should work on.”
Gendron has seen first-hand that college hockey players can come from anywhere.
“I coached high school hockey in Vermont, which isn’t the highest level,” he said, “and I had John LeClair, who went from high school hockey to the University of Vermont to the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers. It really didn’t matter where John LeClair played, because he had some gifts and he had the determination to improve.”