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The Road to the Pros

How a typical U.S. born player makes it to the big leagues

Tuesday, 06.21.2011 / 3:11 PM ET / News
By Rob Baer
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The Road to the Pros
Matt Carle receives the Hobey Baker Award for Best Collegiate Hockey Player while at the University of Denver.
While National Hockey League executives prepare for the 2011 Entry Draft this Friday and Saturday in Minnesota, we wanted to examine the typical path to the NHL for an American-born hockey player. 

It seems like a simple enough assignment, but the dilemma with this particular subject is that a “typical” path doesn’t really exist.  There is no superhighway that will transport a player directly to the doorstep of the NHL, but rather a host of winding, forked roads that will eventually lead the cream of the crop to that final destination.

Most American hockey players begin their journey in similar fashion – Learn-to-Skate and Learn-to-Play programs at their local rinks.  This typically takes place between the ages of 4 and 8.  Once they’re ready to play organized hockey, it’s on to in-house or limited travel leagues, followed by Mite (ages 8U) and Squirt (10U) travel hockey.

By the time they graduate from the Bantam level (14U), most elite players have started to separate themselves from the pack and attract attention of prep school and junior coaches.  It’s around this time that players reach their first fork in the road, where they are faced with several options:
The Liberty Bell Games hosted in Voorhees, N.J.

Tier 1 midget hockey, high school hockey (particularly in Minnesota), or prep school hockey (primarily in the Northeastern US).

More players than ever are now choosing to stay home to play midget hockey. This has been spurred in-part by the formation of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, which features the best youth programs from around the country, including local clubs Team Comcast and the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers. 

Other showcase events, such as the recently concluded Liberty Bell Games at the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone, give teenage players the chance to perform in front of NHL scouts right in their own backyard.

By the time a player reaches age 16-17, he’ll have to make the next big decision about his future: US Junior (such as the USHL, NAHL, and EJHL) for some seasoning before heading to the NCAA, or electing to play Canadian Major Junior (which wipes out a player’s NCAA eligibility).

Former college players James van Riemsdyk (University of New Hampshire) and Matt Carle (University of Denver) may argue that the NCAA is the premier route for an American preparing for professional hockey, although Brian Boucher (Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League) may take exception to that assessment.

At the 2010 NHL Draft, 28.1% of drafted players were born in the United States, including 11 in the first round (a new NHL record).  According to USA Hockey, of the highest drafted American player in each year since 2000, seven played NCAA hockey (including Mike Komisarek, Ryan Suter, and Erik Johnson) and four played Canadian Junior hockey (such as Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane, and last year’s highest picked American Jack Campbell).

During the 2010-11 season, 215 Americans skated in the National Hockey League.  According to College Hockey Inc., 183 of those players (85.1%) honed their skills in the NCAA, while 32 (14.9%) played major junior hockey in the Canadian Hockey League.
van Riemsdyk played two seasons at the University of New Hampshire

As an interesting side note, there were 56 Pennsylvania-born players on NCAA D-1 rosters in 2010-11 (6th most among the 50 states) and 23 from New Jersey.

So which is the quicker route for an American hoping to reach the NHL - college or juniors? 

The answer varies from player to player, although the NCAA has become an increasingly popular pipeline to the NHL in recent years.  The bottom line is this – hockey is a growing sport in the United States (as demonstrated by USA Hockey’s registration of 558,000 members during the 2010-11 season), and as participation levels continue to expand, the talent pool expands as well. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether an American player chooses to go away to play prep school hockey or stays home to play Midget, just as it doesn’t matter whether he elects to play NCAA or Major Junior. If he’s got enough talent, the scouts will find him, and the number of Americans in the NHL will continue to increase.

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