The Donnybrook - The Decade Of Pure Confusion
Facts, Gossip & Rumors From College-Bound Hockey
A Weekly TJHP Feature
This is TJHP's obligatory "look back" as the decade comes to a close. The 2010s saw an enormous amount of change in the Junior Hockey landscape, eventually dominated by the consolidation of leagues. At the beginning of the 2010s, there were still a number of Junior leagues around the country.
With some of this, you have to read slowly because the changes that took place were both confusing and illogical. There once was a time when the USA Hockey Junior Council meetings were worth the price of traveling to Florida or Colorado twice per year just to be on hand in case the you-know-what hit the fan. The potential of a true donnybrook was always present.
As the calendar turns to 2020 the Junior hockey landscape doesn't even resemble that of 2010. Here is the best history we can cobble together to give the Junior hockey follower a historical overview.
When kicking off this decade of history, the table has to be set with the 2011 decision by USA Hockey and the USAH Junior Council to do away with the Tier III Junior A, B and C labels. Along with the disappearance of the labels was the disappearance of the different criteria teams must meet to be certified at one of those levels.
While seemingly insignificant because it only affected pay-to-play Juniors, what this decision brought about was confusion in the marketplace. The natural "path" -- whether it was adhered to or not -- was always in place as it made sense to go from Tier III Junior C to B to A. The tuition-free world was already well-defined with Tier I and Tier II labels.
As an applied beginning in 2011-12, all Junior leagues could claim they were on equal footing with other Junior leagues, with no obligation to meet any sort of standard. The elimination of the "path" within Tier III hockey was the catalyst for what eventually became mass consolidation of leagues, in addition to the WSHL and USPH/NCDC leaving USA Hockey.
America West Hockey League
Using the same name as the previous Tier II version of the AWHL, the new America West Hockey League formed as a Tier III league in 2011. The AWHL was absorbed by the NA3HL in 2014 after a brief run as an independent league.
Atlantic Junior Hockey League / Eastern Hockey League
Legally the AJHL still exists as a non-profit corporation, playing as the Eastern Hockey League. The AJHL formed almost 20 years ago under the umbrella of the Atlantic Metropolitan Hockey League which also consisted of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and the Atlantic Youth Hockey League. The 12 AJHL owners broke away from the AMHL in 2012 so they could have complete self-governance and not have their Junior hockey business affected by youth hockey club operators in the AMHL. The AJHL name went away in 2013 when the Eastern Junior Hockey League suddenly disappeared and the AJHL absorbed six of those teams (Connecticut Oilers, New York Applecore, New Hampshire Monarchs, Valley Jr. Warriors and Philadelphia Revolution).
The EHL has grown to 19 teams in subsequent years despite being involved in another major Junior hockey shake-up in 2017 when six of its teams bolted for the USPHL. The Monarchs, Northern Cyclones, Hartford Jr. Wolfpack (now defunct), Connecticut Nighthawks, New Jersey Rockets, and Boston Bandits opted into the USPHL's model for the 2017-18 season.
Central States Hockey League
A longtime Junior B league that helped kick off the weird decade by announcing Nov. 1, 2010, that the NAHL would be taking it over. After more than 35 years of operation, the CSHL disappeared and the NA3HL was born.
Continental Hockey Association / Eastern States Hockey League
The CHA was originally a Junior C league in the Northeast, back when there was such a thing. Prior to the 2011-12 season, the CHA officially changed its name to the Eastern States Hockey League and its 12 teams played under that banner for two more seasons before disbanding after the 2012-13 season, which was fueled by the creation of the USPHL. The ESHL teams joined the second or third levels of the EHL and USPHL for 2013-14.
Continental Junior Hockey League
Announced in 2010 but emerged with only one team, the Niagara Fury. Amazingly, the "league" still played an 18-game season when the Alpena Thunder of the failed Northern Junior Hockey League joined in September of 2010. So they played each other 18 times and that was a wrap, but still, technically a league that gave it a go.
Eastern Elite Hockey League / EJHL South
Junior hockey in the Southeast has an odd combination of stability and change. For years there have been solid organizations in this part of the country that seemingly have never been able to set up self-governance. The teams were part of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, then the EEHL affiliated with the EJHL, then the EJHL South and eventually the became part of the USPHL.
Eastern Junior Hockey League
One of the oddest things to ever happen in U.S. Junior hockey was the sudden dissolution of the EJHL in 2013. For many years the EJHL set the standard for pay-to-play hockey in terms of on-ice prowess and NCAA advancement. One of the reasons the league stayed so strong was its determination to grow in a disciplined manner. The EJHL had 14 teams when it disbanded and former commissioner Dan Esdale annually told dozens of potential owners the league was not expanding.
During the 2012-13 season, the Junior hockey world was rocked when the Islanders Hockey Club, Junior Bruins, Jersey Hitmen, and South Shore Kings announced they were leaving the EJHL and forming the United States Premier Hockey League. At the end of the season, the remaining EJHL teams either hopped aboard the USPHL train or joined the EHL. After 20 years of serving as a model league, the EJHL disappeared without so much as a puff of smoke.
Empire Junior Hockey League
Another former Junior B league in the Northeast was the first to tinker with the limitation, and eventual removal, of 20-year-old players. A longtime league that became "affiliated" with the USPHL before eventually folding itself into that structure. In 2014 they became the USPHL's Empire Division and in 2015 they began calling themselves the USP3.
The USP3 was eventually done away with and combined with the USPHL's Elite Division in 2017 when the NCDC began.
Interstate Junior Hockey League
Credit the IJHL with the bravado to call its top division the "Super Elite" division. Based in the Northeast, this was an independent Junior league that folded in 2012 when most of its members formed the Northern States Hockey League.
Metropolitan Junior Hockey League
The original Junior hockey league in the United States, the Met formed in 1966 and played for 50 years before it joined forces with the NAHL in 2016 as played one more season as the North American 3 Atlantic Hockey League. Eventually, the organizations joined the EHL or the USPHL.
Midwest Junior Hockey League
Began in 2012 as an AAU-sanctioned league and had three tumultuous seasons before joining the USPHL in 2015.
Minnesota Junior Hockey League
Another longtime Junior hockey league that disappeared quickly after 40 years of operation. In another oddity, the MnJHL was at its height in 2014-15 when most of its teams announced their intention to join the USPHL the following season. In April 2015 the MnJHL ceased operations and all teams joined the USPHL except the Rochester Ice Hawks, which joined the NA3HL.
National Collegiate Development Conference
Formed by the USPHL in 2017 as a tuition-free Junior hockey league, the NCDC was denied its Tier II application by USA Hockey, which paved the way for the NCDC's creation outside USAH governance. In addition, the domino effect meant USPHL Premier and Elite Divisions also left USA Hockey. In its third season, the NCDC remains an "almost tuition-free" league as each NCDC player is required to register with the league and pay a $400 fee directly to the USPHL. Like USA Hockey Tier II teams, NCDC players also pay billet fees if applicable.
North American 3 Hockey League
Formed in 2010 when the Central States Hockey League joined forces with the NAHL under this brand. As you can read on this page, the NA3HL eventually gobbled up numerous teams and leagues to exist in its current state.
North American 3 Atlantic Hockey League
Played one season in 2016-17 under a management agreement between the NAHL and the Atlantic Metropolitan Hockey League (former Metropolitan Junior Hockey League teams).
North American 3 Eastern Hockey League
Formed in 2014-15 when the Northern States Hockey League left AAU and joined USA Hockey, managed by the NAHL, with the agreement that it would be granted Tier III status. This was truly the wild west of the Junior hockey period when a league literally jumped ship from AAU to USA Hockey without going through any formal Junior Council process. In 2016 the NA3EHL was absorbed by the NA3HL where some of its remaining members reside today.
Northern Junior Hockey League
This non-USA Hockey league died in 2010 before the decade really had a chance to get going. It was formed when two non-decade leagues -- the America East Hockey League and the United Junior Hockey League -- disbanded.
Northern Pacific Hockey League
Established in 2000 as the NorPac Junior Hockey League, the NPHL started to deteriorate because of the economy and then WSHL's departure in 2011 for the AAU. This made it easy for teams to jump leagues and the NPHL couldn't counter in the competitive environment. In May 2016 the remaining four NPHL teams joined the USPHL.
Northern States Hockey League
Played two seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) within AAU after being formed mainly by the dissolution of the IJHL. They continued to grow and eventually left the AAU and joined USA Hockey as the North American 3 East Hockey League at the beginning of the 2014-15 season.
United States Premier Hockey League
The King of All Junior Hockey Stories in the 2010s was the creation of the USPHL and the subsequent trail of Junior hockey consolidation nationwide. As discussed above, few things in hockey were more head-scratching than the overnight disappearance of the EJHL and the birth of the USPHL.
The USPHL was announced in December 2012 with the Islanders Hockey Club, Junior Bruins, Jersey Hitmen and South Shore Kings as the founding members. All of these organizations were playing in the EJHL when the USPHL was announced. It became obvious the USPHL was going to leave some of the EJHL teams behind, which set up a major fight in USA Hockey and at least one prolonged court battle, as at least one EJHL franchise had recently been purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars before being left out of the USPHL.
From those four teams quickly sprung the largest amateur hockey league in North America as the consolidation/folding/merging process went into overdrive. While some of the EJHL teams were left in the cold and joined the EHL, the USPHL disrupted the landscape again in 2017 with the formation of the NCDC and the grabbing of six EHL organizations.
Western States Hockey League
The WSHL left USA Hockey in 2011 based upon an inability to run the league as a business, with control over its own expansion and franchise location. The AAU pitched its governance to all the Junior leagues in 2010 or 2011 as the AAU home offices are located literally across the street from the former hotel that hosted the USA Hockey Midwinter meetings in Orlando, Fl. The WSHL bit on the AAU bait and remains in that organization to this day.
Here are a few notes from this season over a sleepy Christmas break.
The Mac's Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament is a world-renowned youth hockey event held in Western Canada every year. Next year it will have a different name as Hockey Canada is doing away with terms like "midget" and Mac's brand has been assumed by Circle K.
There is no word on a new name, but "Circle K 18U" doesn't roll off the tongue quite like Mac's Midget.
Sixteen-year-old Hobie Hedquist, a Minnesota native who plays for the Sioux Falls Power 16U team, became the youngest winning goalie in Dubuque Saints Tier I history on Dec. 28 when he stopped 27 shots en route to a 3-2 victory over Cedar Rapids. Hedquist, who was doesn't turn 17 until February, was recently called up to the Saints.
The annual USPHL Winter Showcase kicks off Jan. 3 and runs through Jan. 6 at the New England Sports Center. Of note for this showcase is it manages to get almost every USPHL and NCDC Junior team under one roof in one weekend.
There will be an astounding 90 Premier Division games, 34 Elite Division games and 18 NCDC games played by 75 total Junior teams during the four-day stretch. According to Josh Boyd, the USPHL's communications person, some of the Midwest Division teams opted to play in the Islanders Showcase in the greater Boston area rather than attend the Winter Showcase.
Jeff Nygaard is the editor of The Junior Hockey Podcast. He covers Junior and college-bound hockey as a traditional “beat,” in addition to breaking news stories during the course of the year.
He has a vast amount of experience on the business and organizational side of the sport as a former owner-operator of two Junior organizations and two youth clubs and has served as executive director or commissioner of the Eastern Hockey League and the United States Premier Hockey League.
A Fergus Falls, Minn., native, Nygaard grew up playing for the Fergus Falls Youth Hockey Association, Fergus Falls High School, Fergus Falls Community College and North Dakota State University programs.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, story ideas, and anonymous tips.