Although much of our coverage here on the site revolves around American junior hockey, I'd like to take this space to shine a light on our northerly neighbors and the plethora of junior hockey opportunities that await in the Great White North. I write this piece having played my final year of juniors for the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Hockey League (NOJHL) back in 2013. I can safely contend that my time playing Canadian junior hockey was time well spent and beneficial to my development into an NCAA caliber goaltender.
The junior hockey grind is always unpredictable. With the prospect of trades, injuries and a myriad of other factors potentially limiting ones time on a roster, a player can never be assured of their spot on a team. Take, for example, the newly minted USA Central Hockey League, a non-sanctioned junior league that sprung up in the Midwest this past year. This league took in players to fill roster spots and then ultimately scuttled the season, leaving their players high and dry for the remainder of the year, a frustrating position to be in for anyone trying to develop as a player. Even though whole leagues spontaneously collapsing is a rare occurrence in the junior hockey world, players scrambling during the summer or mid-season in order to find a team to play on is an unfortunate reality.
Knowing how to navigate the rough waters of the junior hockey life can be difficult. As a goaltending coach for Wolfe Hockey, I would engage in advisory sessions with my students who were seeking advice on where to play and how to advance their junior careers. On more than several occasions, over my nearly three years working with kids playing hockey in the mid-Atlantic, I would run into a player who got cut from their junior team prior to signing their contract, leaving them with the prospect of not playing that upcoming season. When asked what to do and where else they could play, I gave those kids the same advice I'll give any prospective player reading this article: don't be afraid to look north to Canada. Now, this isn't to say that American junior hockey isn't a great choice, but Canadian juniors does provide another avenue for development in a country that is absolutely crazy about hockey.
While playing in the States is a phenomenal experience that I was fortunate to participate in during my junior career, playing in Canada was an experience all its own. The town of Blind River Ontario, where I played my last year of juniors, is a town of about 3,500 people, six hours northwest of Toronto and three hours from Sault Ste Marie Michigan. Home to Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien, the township is well off the beaten path, which only adds to its charm. Blind River, at the time, had roughly three fast food restaurants, a Tim Horton's (because Canada), a gym (which was haunted during my time there), a couple bars, a handful of local restaurants, a liquor store and, of course, a hockey rink. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to one of the local high schools where only one movie was shown for two weeks in their auditorium. Surrounded by forest and located on the northern channel of Lake Huron, the winter was bitterly cold but there was no shortage of hunting, fishing and snowmobile riding. Included in a smaller town is a pure fanaticism over their hockey team. Blind River certainly champions everything Beavers hockey and the passionate crowds at games add to the overall electric atmosphere. Although this is not characteristic of every junior hockey venue throughout Canada, the level of excellence and development exuded from Canadian junior programs certainly speaks for itself.
The Canadian Junior A Hockey League (CJHL) is made up of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL), the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL), the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL), the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), the Quebec Junior Hockey League (LHJAAAQ) and the Maritime Hockey League (MHL). Although Canada already possesses an extensive list of Junior A teams, there are even more Junior B and Junior C programs littered throughout the country, leaving plenty of options for aspiring junior hockey players. One only has to visit the CJHL alumni page to see the long list of college commits that came from these Junior A programs and many more players within these leagues have committed to NCAA Division III and high level ACHA programs. Many of these programs are located in smaller towns just like Blind River and draw the attention of almost all the towns residents, creating a professional atmosphere for all the players involved in the program. The large amount of college commits shows the dedication these programs have toward advancing their players, and even if an NCAA commit isn't what you're looking for, these teams will provide an incredible experience that will stick with you for a lifetime (not to mention the awesome stories that will undoubtedly be made during your tenure with a team).
Junior hockey is a wonderful thing and I owe much of who I am today to the five years I spent traveling the country playing the sport that I love. Even though the process of playing juniors may be daunting and the uncertainty of finding a program to play for may seem overbearing at times, there are plenty of options. The many coaches we've had on the podcast illustrate the passion and dedication so many individuals within the junior hockey world have for the game and their player's development. Everywhere you look there are programs willing to give hard working, passionate and coachable kids a shot at their dreams. Although it may be comfortable and easy to stick around and play for your local junior team, don't be afraid to move out of your comfort zone. Being uncomfortable and going through change is the only way you're going to grow as a person and the experiences gained from moving away from home are irreplaceable. Playing juniors in the States is great but don't just limit yourself to one particular country, a whole other world exists just north of the border.