Among the major American pro sports leagues, the NHL's player development system is the most diversified. The early September gathering of star players in Chicago for the NHL/NHL Players Association Tour provides a perfect example.
Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg honed his NHL game playing against fellow Swedes sometimes 10 to 12 years older in the country's professional league. Kevin Hayes, newly signed by the Philadelphia Flyers, starred for Boston College in one of the NCAA's top hockey conferences. Detroit's first-line center and likely next Red Wings captain, Dylan Larkin, was a stalwart for the U.S. Development Team, which plays in the U.S. Hockey League (USHL).
Then there's Patrick Kane, star winger for the Chicago Blackhawks, played junior hockey as an American kid in the storied Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau played for his home province's Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL, aka the 'Q').
Many Seattle hockey fans know this one: New York Islanders star Mathew Barzal crafted his game and solidified his NHL Draft status with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL), playing home games in Kent.
It's quite the range: There are highly regarded professional leagues across Europe with lots of grown men, including Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and the top Finnish league, Liiga, which is called the Finnish Elite League here in North America. Teens who play in these leagues are considered prime prospects for the NHL.
While NCAA hockey sends its share of players to the NHL, "junior" hockey is one element of stocking NHL rosters that differs greatly from the NBA, NFL and MLB.
Junior hockey generally includes players ages 16 to 21 who are amateurs and who play in U.S. and Canadian leagues. "Major junior" hockey is the highest level of play in Canada, where this whole junior system started. The major junior leagues in Canada are the aforementioned WHL (operating in western Canada provinces, Washington and Oregon), OHL (Ontario) and QMJHL (Quebec). These three leagues comprise the CHL or Canadian Hockey League. There is also a second tier of juniors in Canada known as Junior A.
In the U.S., the top junior hockey league is the USHL, which has 16 teams located in Midwest states and is sanctioned by USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur play here in the States.
All junior hockey teams and leagues are amateur level, allowing players to be drafted and, in some cases, attend NCAA schools before, if they are good enough, turning pro. Hockey is unique among the four major pro sports leagues in that its junior level is independent of school and that the majority of NHL draftees come from outside the collegiate system. Junior hockey leagues exist strictly to develop hockey players.
The minimum age of players is highly relevant for NHL Seattle fans. The most exceptional 16-year-olds beginning their junior career this fall are born in 2003, which means they will be entry draft-eligible as 18-year-olds for the 2021 NHL Draft when Seattle participates for the first time. Many young players start juniors as 17-year-olds, so the 2020-21 junior leagues' seasons will offer more players to watch as possible draftees.
The junior leagues in Canada have a deep history of representing communities and producing Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup winners and a lot of civic pride. Some teams are privately owned while others are community-run organizations. Most teams play in 3,000 to 6,000 seat arenas, but a growing number of arenas with 10,000-plus capacity are being built.
Another unique attribute of the juniors system is that players often move away from home as teenagers to play for a team and live with "billet" families (sometimes with other teammates) who volunteer to take in players. Billet families grow close to many of the players. NHL Seattle General Manager Ron Francis says contacting billet parents is wise and a common practice when vetting players that an NHL team is considering drafting.
Before each season is complete, the three CHL champions play for the Memorial Cup, playing a round-robin tournament that include a fourth host team selected by CHL leaders. USHL teams compete for the Clark Cup during the postseason. Both playoffs are potent testing grounds for junior players hoping to convince NHL team management, such as Francis and new NHL Seattle assistant GM Ricky Olczyk, they are capable of delivering strong performances during the Stanley Cup Playoffs someday.
One more Cup that matters: The Calder Cup is the postseason prize for the American Hockey League, which is the USA's other professional hockey league, in this case the highest-level league that feeds into the NHL. The AHL blends together all of the draftees coming up in the NHL's development system.
Every NHL team is affiliated with an AHL franchise. Some NHL teams own the franchise outright while almost all NHL teams control the hockey decisions made for the AHL affiliate. Many junior players spend a year or three in the AHL, save the handful of 18-year-olds who go straight to the pros and notch regular NHL shifts living the dream earlier than most players.
That NHL dream has always been fueled by the junior teams in the far reaches of Canadian provinces now joined by any number of U.S.-based teams with 16- to 21-year-olds. Junior hockey is at the root of the dream for most NHL players.