Cover Story: Climbing the Proven Ladder
June 6, 2016
By Joshua Boyd, USA Junior Hockey Magazine
From coast to coast and from north to south in the United States, there exists a hockey development model that will benefit and change the lives of more than 3,000 players in the 2016-17 season.
The North American Hockey League’s Ladder of Development continues to grow, from top to bottom.
The NAHL in 2016-17 will feature a 24-team top tier, which is also USA Hockey’s only Tier-2 junior league in the country, and from which 220 players have committed to college hockey this season alone.
The Ladder of Development continues with the 48-team Tier-3 NA3HL, which acts as a feeder system for both the NAHL teams and college hockey teams at all levels.
The system also includes the NAPHL, a league that will now have three age categories with the addition of a 15U Division this season. The 15U joins the already successful 16U and 18U Divisions that have not only provided a pipeline to the NAHL and other high-tier levels of junior hockey, but also college recruitment and commitment possibilities of its own.
It is no surprise then, when there are ownership groups of NAHL teams that also own teams in either the NA3HL or the NAPHL. They are committed to helping players on the Ladder of Development to improve and grow on a stable and consistent track in a “hockey family” atmosphere.
“We are a hockey family and have four boys that play hockey,” said Michelle Bryant, who owns the NAHL’s Coulee Region Chill, and two teams in the NA3HL – the La Crosse Freeze and the Euless Jr. Stars. “When the Coulee Region Chill came to our community, I was able to become part of the staff and we also hosted a player. We felt very strongly about the positive community impact that the Chill had to offer and when the previous owner decided to sell, we wanted to see the team stay here, so we purchased it from the previous owner.
“As part of that commitment, we were excited about helping student-athletes fulfill their dreams of playing college hockey,” she added.
Bryant joins a group of fellow multitier owners like Chris Canavati (Brookings Blizzard NAHL, and Alexandria Blizzard and Willmar NA3HL), Frank Trazzera (Lone Star Brahmas NAHL, and Texas Brahmas NA3HL)and Donald Stone (Topeka Roadrunners NAHL, and Atlanta Capitols NA3HL).
Other organizations, such as the New Jersey Titans and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, have teams in the NAHL and also in the NAPHL (North American Prospects Hockey League).
The overriding philosophy for these owners is “why have just one team successful in development when you can have two or three?”
“Our first priority is to provide the players the opportunity to play in a structured, healthy environment which in turn gives them the opportunity to be seen and advance to the next level,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld.
The advancement doesn’t have to be from the NAPHL to the NA3HL to the NAHL necessarily.
“Our advancement is about providing them a step to get to college, so if a NAPHL player can advance directly to college, that’s great,” said Frankenfeld. “If a NA3HL player can advance directly to college, that’s also a success story.”
Whichever path a player takes, the opportunity is there for a player to enter the NAHL’s Ladder of Development as young as 14 and play right through age 20.
While 220 players (and counting) will move on to college after this year from the NAHL, all three levels are advancing players on to college. More than 100 NA3HL players are matriculating to NCAA and ACHA teams this year. The NAPHL saw more than two dozen players commit to college for next year or future years.
The colleges are coming to see NAHL hockey and all of the teams in the Ladder of Development because they know what to expect. Players are training and playing for a full season in organizations run under pro models, with strength and conditioning coaches, skills coaches and private locker rooms.
Decades of excellence
In 2016-17, the NAHL will enter its 41st year, tops among the nation’s all-junior leagues. The NAHL will be 24 teams strong for next season, and provides the best channel in the Ladder of Development for NCAA Division 1 advancement.
It also features one of the biggest events all year on the junior hockey calendar, the NAHL Showcase at the eight-surface Schwan SuperRink in Blaine, Minn.
The NAHL is one of only two tuitionfree leagues in the country – its closest league in comparison is the Tier-1 USHL, and the NAHL is unique in that comparison. Frankenfeld certainly appreciates what the owners do for young hockey players.
“I give them a ridiculous amount of credit for the risk they take to provide free hockey and give back to the players,” added Frankenfeld. “All those NAHL owners are entrepreneurs and
are successful in other businesses, but I call them philanthropic entrepreneurs because they might end up writing a lot of checks.”
The NAHL has grown to be an increasingly stable league and a few membership relocations have allowed the NAHL to expand to the Eastern Seaboard. The East Division began in 2015-16 and is growing to five teams for the 2016-17 season.
“At the junior level, you have to be mobile, agile and quick when markets open and the economy changes,” said Frankenfeld. “When you look back, NAHL markets are lasting longer than ever, which provides more consistency for the player to develop and the brand to improve.”
The NAHL is excited about its growth, welcoming two new teams this year in the Northeast Generals (Boston, Mass.) and the Shreveport (La.) Mudbugs.
The Generals are excited about being part of the NAHL and NA3HL as both leagues continue to grow.
“We have always prided ourselves on the type of kids we get on any team we have, but with the NAHL it has opened up the player pool quite a bit,” said Generals GM/head coach Bryan Erikson. “We are in a position where we can be a little more patient.”
“When these owners who own NAHL teams are in as deep as they are, you can understand why they want to own a NA3HL team as well a couple hours away,” said Frankenfeld. “Or, it makes sense to have a Tier-3 team in a different state for brand recognition.”
In Bryant’s case, it was both – one NA3HL team close by, and one about 1,000 miles distant.
“The first year we owned the [La Crosse] Freeze, we saw the ability to help develop players for that next level,” added Bryant. “We wanted to broaden our brand name and development options and the South [Euless, Texas] was an area that we felt was still developing in the NA3HL.”
“The NAHL is a great brand of junior hockey,” added Bryant. “With 24 teams spanning across the country, we are able to make a significant impact on helping student-athletes play at the college
NA3HL an important step on the Ladder
The NA3HL has grown from the 2010 acquisition by the NAHL of the former Central States Hockey League, with 12 teams in 2010-11 to 34 in 2015-16. The addition of 13 teams from the former NA3EHL and one more expansion team brings the number of teams to 48 for the 2016-17 season.
The Generals, along with their new NAHL team in the East Division, have their Tier-3 team in the NA3HL. That team moved into the NA3HL from the former NA3EHL.
“We will practice back-to-back and have our NA3HL kids practice with the NAHL team so we can help them work on areas that will help them make the jump to the NAHL,” said Erikson.
“I think the NA3HL is a great league with a ton of skill and I think having a NAHL team will allow us to compete in Year 2 by signing the best kids and the best players from a much larger supply than we previously had available to us,” Erikson added.
More and more every year, there are NA3HL players ascending the Ladder of Development to the NAHL. The number of players increased from 22 through the 2014-15 season, to 28 through the 2015-16 season.
“There are many-student athletes that want to play junior hockey and move on to college hockey. Not all players are ready for NAHL hockey their first year. The NA3HL allows players to get into junior hockey and be developed for that next level,” said Bryant.
The NA3HL contains components of three former U.S. junior leagues. The options haven’t disappeared for players, but taking these former properties under the NA3HL banner gives stability and accountability.
“I think it eliminates the misinformation out there, so there is less confusion for parents and players,” said Frankenfeld. “When you ask why the CSHL teams joined the NA3HL in the first place, those are good hockey people and they wanted to take care of their business model with their hockey players without dealing with the league operations side of it.
“With less leagues, and three former leagues under one name, you know what you’ll get. The NAHL brand brings a certain amount of quality,” he added.
The NAHL has a philosophy of “if it is done in the NAHL, then it is done in the NA3HL.”
“We built for the NA3HL policies and procedures right from the NAHL’s DNA. We have a 12-person full-time staff that manages the NAHL properties on a daily basis,” said Frankenfeld. “It’s all about the opportunity for the players. We do a showcase in the NA3HL, just like the NAHL Showcase. There is a Top Prospects Tournament, just like in the NAHL, and a championship tournament, just like in the NAHL.”
The NA3HL also has a Department of Player Safety, Department of Central Scouting and a Director of Player Personnel that presents NCAA Education Seminars just like in the NAHL.
“With the vast network of NA3HL and NAHL teams, the player has the ability to be scouted by our NAHL network of coaches. The Chill looks for that NA3HL player that makes a significant impact on their Tier-3 team,” said Bryant. “Having them in our system of teams, we are able to advise and develop them for that next level.”
A newer directive for the NAHL is to begin bringing more NA3HL coaches to the Future Prospects Tournaments and Combines.
“The reality is not everybody is going to play in the NAHL, but at whatever level you’re playing in the Ladder of Development, you’re playing in a quality character-building structure,” said Frankenfeld. “When you watch our NA3HL championship, with the level of play and the level of commitment, and with what is happening on the ice, that is a pretty fantastic product.”
“We hope that the NA3HL as a whole will be a great source for players, but having our players be able to practice with a NAHL team and grow with them, we should be able to get five to six kids from one year to the next able to make the jump to the NAHL,” added Erikson.
While the NAHL Showcase is held in September, the NA3HL Showcase in Blaine is held in December, about a week before Christmas, closing out the first half of the season essentially.
“When we built the original Blaine showcase for the NA3HL, we were using four rinks. Now, we will use the eight rinks. It’s absolutely enormous,” said Frankenfeld. “What we found, too, with colleges and NHL scouts, whatever higher league you’re trying to serve, when we put an event on the map, you have to put it in a desirable travel location and at the best time.”
NAPHL opens the door to exposure
The North American Prospects Hockey League will include 46 teams at the 15U, 16U and 18U levels this year. The NAPHL will enter its eighth season of operation in 2016-17.
Ten teams signed on for the NAPHL’s newest division, 15U. Those 10 organizations have teams at all three levels of the NAPHL.
“At the time the NAPHL was created, there were all these different tournaments out there. All these Midget coaches had to try to get into these tournaments, and they didn’t know what the schedule would be,” said Frankenfeld. “Back in those days, I was a Midget coach and just starting on with the NAHL. Why not create an events schedule that not only turns into a league, but in which everyone knows where they’re going and you have a vertical exposure model, playing alongside junior teams under the same roof.”
The NAHL Showcase not only includes all NAHL teams, but every NAPHL team over most of the same days.
At events like that, the NAHL Central Scouting Department is in full effect. “A big component of Central Scouting is our NCAA Education Seminars, and also junior hockey seminars – those are held at these events to educate parents and players about what they need to do academically, and what they need to understand about making a junior team and going through the process,” added Frankenfeld.
“A big component of Central Scouting is our NCAA Education Seminars, and also junior hockey seminars – those are held at these events to educate parents and players about what they need to do academically, and what they need to understand about making a junior team and going through the process,” added Frankenfeld.
The NAPHL creates a broader bandwidth for exposure than they receive in local competition. The NAPHL teams play in five league showcases throughout the year, in addition to playoffs.
“That’s the home run for the youth affiliates, and it’s value added to the players in the organization,” added Frankenfeld. “At the new 15U level, these are the players who are coming into focus, and where they are two or three years away from playing in the NAHL.”
The NAPHL playoffs are held under the same roof as the NAHL Top Prospects Showcase in February.
“It has evolved considerably since the league was founded, with the number of players we see advancing to the NAHL and now on to college,” added Frankenfeld.
With so many outlets for players ages 14 to 20 on the Ladder of Development, it’s no surprise the optimism in the NAHL front office in Frisco, Texas, is unbounded.
“With the goodwill the NAHL has built with youth, college and professional programs, the brand is probably at the highest it’s ever been. The college recognition is higher than it’s ever been, and the hockey is as good it’s ever been,” Frankenfeld said. “We’re excited about it, and we’ve built it on what’s best for the players.”
Where will your first step on the Ladder take you?