Early information on the future "look" of US Jr hockey is trickling out. This trickling of information, is leading many to see this as a bright new future. The current composition and tier system has many, including "experts" confused. Confused, as to what the the tiers really mean, the hard segmentation of leagues and so on, why if this kid is so good is he playing in x league and not y, which usually inappropriately is tier related. All of which spills over on the families, and players as they make the shift from either AA, AAA or High School hockey. The current composition has pockets of leagues around the country. Which adds whole lot of conjecture as to what is good jr hockey. When quite simply good Jr hockey is about developing players. Some are best suited to begin in one league over another because it is a better match for their abilities.
What is so exciting? We see a Nationalized look, taking shape from what I gather. The USHL will have a presence in each of the 4 United States Regions. Currently the 16 USHL teams are located in the Mid West. The Eastern most team is the Youngstown Phantoms of Youngstown Ohio. The Western Most team Omaha Lancers, of Omaha Nebraska. Other teams found as far south as Indianapolis to the north where we see Fargo. The 2014-2015 season is when the transformation matters to players. Teams from Portland Maine down to New York-New Jersey that currently compose the Eastern Junior Hockey League or with the addition of Portland (taking an Atlantic Junior Hockey League to the EJHL for 2012-2013) will compose this USHL East division. Some 4 to as many as 6 or 7 teams is what I am seeing when all is said and done. Skip Prince USHL Comishioner is quoted as saying the league would be strong with 26 teams.
What is not being reported as heavily is, but again in small broken tidbits, is that some 14 teams applied to join the USHL. We know who are east coast players as mentioned above, so who are these others? Welcome the USHL South Western Conference, as I refer to it. Hockey is booming in the south west. Look for several NAHL south Members to make the move in 2014, add in the potential Denver-ish, and maybe California, maybe Las Vegas squad. I can Commissioner Prince's USHL. A strong vibrant 26 teams, where we may see 27 with Team USA's two teams each playing independent USHL schedules. A league with the expanded 64 game schedual. The tradition of the Fall Classic remaining a mid west venue. The addition of a USHL winter Showcase, where the newly formed USHL east plays host, and converts one of the EJHL showcases to a USHL venue, where they annually draw now at one event scouts from all the 100 NCAA teams in the Northeast on up to the NHL. This would likely become the big event of the year.
Now some are saying that this will water down the league. This though has lead some early sceptics to counting "credible" players from each league and region etc. Which not at all accurate. Others are speaking to fan base and how the east coast has none. That is spot on, but the east coast owners know their market, and do not care. THey have adapeted operating models that work for them. Where travel is concerned for them the longest drive they have now is maybe 4 hours. I do not see based on this direction the USHL having all teams play each other, all season as they do now. Further the USHL is going younger. Example, this year USHL teams are allowed something to the tune of 4 91's, 8-92's and 2 imports(that have to be counted by birth-year as well). What we are likely to see is an import increase to 4. The league is going younger as well so figure a reduction of older players. Say for 2012-2013 instead of 4 92's and 8 93's teams are only allowed 2 92's and 6 93's with 4 imports. Keep in mind the USHL brought back tenders this year. Where by any 96 Tendered to a team, may not be locked in on the Futures Roster, but gets an automatic 55% of games which equals 35 games and must be on the Roster all year, no trades. No team is going to put 35 games of experience into a kid and shelf him the remainder of the season. This tells you the kids not only have to be good, but the team has to have done their home work, and the players are ready for this highest level. Tenders are not cheap. The cost of the Tender is a First round pick for the first. The Second Burns the second round pick of the draft. Again some claim the kids are to young. No. Look at major JR. This is what the USHL is going after in a sense. Retaining the best players in the world, and grooming them for College. I believe there is also a move here to make NCAA teams younger. Currently the average age of hockey freshman is 20.3. My guess is that is going to driven down to 19. Lets face it, if a kid is good enough to get a commitment his first year of Jr's to an NCAA program. It safe to assume that after one additional season he will be ready. So if you have the best 15, 16, 17, 18 year olds in the USHL. They should be well groomed for NCAA play by 19. Further evidence is the move to "remove" fighting from Jr hockey. The move will not ban the act, but the penalty will follow suit with the NCAA as it does in the EJHL. The modern game is about skill. There is a need for enforcers at every level, including AA 16 to High School. But the use of the skill is different than the scripted matches we so often see now.
Speaking about College hockey. There was a massive shift this year. Its not over. No, I dont mean we should expect any major announcements right now. Just that there are numerous other institutions looking at following the self endowment model. These are not just the schools with D3 programs now. These are those name brand schools, with deeper than not pocketed alumni. I see a very large B10 hockey conference. I see some southern schools, as I look out 10-15 years.
There is also some contraction in Tier II the NAHL is adjusting down in numbers. The Wenatchee Wild, an Alaska based NAHL team. Meet with the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League) commissioner on the 7th. The Wild are exasperated by their 900 mile shortest road trip. That is right 900 miles, Toledo Ohio to Freeport Maine, or Toledo Ohio to Kerney Nebraska, or Toledo Ohio to Jacksonville Florida is what that equates to in lower 48 terms. Jr Hockey players adjust, but this is understandable, that is nuts, very expensive. The BCHL has accepted the WIld in 2013, but the Wild want and honestly need in now. Seemingly the Wild will play next season in the NAHL if they do not get approved for the BCHL. The Ownership group does have a spot for a team next year in JOHNSTOWN PA(note the eastern movement trend).
Now it gets more nuts for the NAHL. I spoke of contraction. That is more than one team. The MI Warriors are not playing next year, nor will the St Louis Bandits. The Fresno Monsters, Alaska Avalanche, and Dawson Creek Rage going dormant as well. Dormancy is for all intensive purposes folding, and displacing players, while the owners look for other options. The West division is currently home to Fresno, Wenatchee, Alaska, Kenai, Fairbanks and Dawson Creek. The West will be left with only Kenai, and Fairbanks. The Two teams will be joining the NAHL South. Yes. South. Playing Amarillo Texas, Corpus Christi, Topeka, New Mexico, Wichita, and Texas. The Alaska teams will be SUBSIDIZING travel costs for those teams. That wont last long. Those two teams are rumored to be looking at joining the BCHL as well, or relocating ( Buffalo NY anyone?) There is alot going on. There always is. Its the high and low of JR hockey.
But the exciting part is we are seeing a move toward some kind of a National look. East coast kids, Midwest, Southern, South West, and West Coast kids all playing in the same leagues and at the year some great playoffs. Today, we must sit back and watch it all pan out over the next weeks and months