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How Does This Whole Thing Work?: Hockey Recruiting Tutorial Pt. 1

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Taking a look at how hockey recruiting is a totally different practice than the more contemporary football and basketball cycles

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

So it's the summer time, and outside of football commitments happening as often as Hollywood green lighting updates to tired old franchises, things have slowed down a bit here at The Only Colors. I felt now would be a good time to start a summer series to delve a little bit deeper into our college hockey coverage. This summer (work and school permitting) I would love to take a look at the Spartans' power play through film analysis (for a preview of what I would like to do look at this post on the 1-3-1 power play from Pension Plan Puppets), where the program is heading under Tom Anastos, and recruiting.

Recently, in the comment sections for the welcome aboard posts for Taro Hirose and Thomas Miller, a few readers pointed out they enjoyed the information but had no idea what was being said. Acronyms like BCHL, AAA Midget Major hockey, and verbal commitments for 2017-18 looks like hieroglyphics to the football, and basketball recruiting lexicon. So today I will start what will be a multi-part series (maybe 2, maybe 3) explaining the workings of college hockey recruiting.

A quick caveat, I was not recruited to play college hockey, I have never as a coach recruited or had a player recruited, so I do not pronounce to be the expert on college hockey recruiting, I have had friends and recently a cousin go through the process but my knowledge is not from personal experience. This is not meant to be a cookie cutter, this is how it works for everyone article. College hockey has many different practices in recruiting that can differ based on university type, conference affiliation, and budget. So, I hope you enjoy this introduction to college hockey recruiting and if you have any suggestions for future articles, or any questions please post them in the comments!

The Feeder Systems

The first thing people notice when looking at recruiting in hockey compared to the more contemporary basketball, and football recruiting is where the talent is coming from. While most are used to seeing players come from their local high schools, and rise to getting recruited by colleges, that story in hockey is pretty uncommon. Players who are looking to play NCAA Division I hockey are not being developed in high school leagues (note: I will cover a few exceptions to this rule), and often are leaving home at the age of 16-18 to chase their dreams of getting a "full boat" scholarship.

The journey for a majority of hockey players seeking a division one scholarship begins with playing for a AAA Midget Minor or Major team for the ages 15-18. Midget minor refers to the younger of the two age groups and includes players 15-16 years old (exceptions can be made for exceptional 14 year olds) and midget majors are 15-18 year old players, where talent may trump age.

When thinking of the AAA hockey system think of AAU basketball. These teams are not associated with high schools, can pull kids from a wide geographical area, and they play intense tournament dominated schedules or showcases. The key difference between AAA hockey, and AAU basketball is that more often than not AAA hockey players are choosing to play travel hockey instead of playing high school hockey.

The state of Michigan recently instituted a pilot program with a split season between Midget A and AA (starting their season in August) and high school hockey. The state of Minnesota has a version of a split season which historically has allowed Minnesota high schools to hold onto their talent, and be a part of the recruiting process for players. The split season allows for players to "take a break" from their travel season to play high school hockey, and still be eligible to compete with their travel organizations come national championship time. At this time, however, this has not been instituted with AAA hockey in Michigan, meaning the state's best young players are still having to choose between AAA and the accepted inferior high school leagues. Also, unlike AAU basketball the talent pool in AAA will not be watered down in the state of Michigan anytime soon, as in 2014 the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association capped the number of Tier I teams to ten per age group. From an article by hockey recruiting website, Over The Boards' Jasper Kozak-Miller:

In short, the state’s association limited the amount of Tier 1 entries to ten. Per the official minutes of the State Playoff Committee in December, the ten teams are:

Belle Tire, Victory Honda, Compuware, Little Caesars, Marquette, Michigan Nationals, Oakland Jr. Grizzlies, Sault Michigan Hockey, West Michigan Elite Hockey Association and Honeybaked.

It’s hard to say how much this will change but AAA hockey is very watered down nationally and any attempt to give more legitimacy to a state’s teams probably starts by taking out the excessive options for players. That said, I only counted about 12-14 teams at most Tier 1 levels from Michigan on a quick unofficial check, so it probably won’t make a major difference.


The American Junior Hockey System

When you get into the world of youth hockey you will find that there are steps, and tiers moving a player through their career. You start as a mini-mite or mite, moving through squirt, pee-wee, bantams, and midget. There are tiers within each age bracket as well, AAA (most elite travel), AA (travel for the second year in an age group i.e. 2nd year bantam), A travel (1st year in an age group), and B league or "house" hockey.

This tier system also holds true in the most fertile recruiting ground in USA Hockey, the Junior Hockey system. While coaches of AAA Midget Major and Minor teams ultimately love to see their players play NCAA hockey, their main goal is to progress players to the next level in their maturation, which is to get them to a junior team, preferably a Tier I or Tier II team.

The junior hockey landscape in America is made up of three tiers and age ranges from 16-20. The third, and lowest tier involves mostly regional leagues such as the Rocky Mountain Junior League, Minnesota Junior League, and the Eastern Hockey League. It also features the NA3HL, which is a feeder program to the only Tier II league in the USA Hockey system, the North American Hockey League (NAHL).

The NAHL is the second best junior league in USA Hockey featuring 24 teams across 11 states. The NAHL usually features players who enter the league without NCAA commitments who are looking to gain an offer through their play in the NAHL. They may be players who didn't get exposure from a top AAA program, may have dominated their high school league, or are late bloomers. The NAHL had a record setting 221 college commitments in 2013-14 (which includes NCAA Division III) and also works to get their players promoted to Tier I junior hockey as well.

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The top junior hockey league in USA Hockey, and the sole Tier I league is the United States Hockey League (USHL). The USHL features 17 teams, and their main goal is to provide NCAA opportunities for players. All players in the USHL maintain NCAA eligibility (we will contrast this with Canadian junior hockey in part 2 of our series), and often entire rosters have made NCAA commitments. The USHL currently has 368 players with NCAA commitments, and 251 alumni in the NHL. I think the USHL best describes itself from the player development vision on it's own website:

The USHL represents the best in hockey; the league does not ask you to sacrifice choices. The USHL helps you keep them. A USHL player can play up to 80 games with preseason, regular season, and playoff games. Over 90% of the games are on the weekends or holidays to make sure school work is a priority. Players attend school, have part time jobs, or are regularly doing community service during their free time. Players are able to play and practice in professional facilities. Players regularly play in front of an average of nearly 3,000 fans a game. The team objectives are to win the Clark Cup Playoffs and the Anderson Cup Regular Season Championship.

The USHL is the primary source of talent for the Michigan State roster, almost exclusively since the hiring of Tom Anastos. The USHL tends to be the league with higher ceiling prospects, and early prodigies while the NAHL is stocked full of older players who maybe hit their stride a little later. Below you'll find listed the path, both of AAA affiliation and junior league of the incoming hockey prospects for Michigan State hockey next season.

Name Position Junior Affiliation AAA Affiliation
Mason Appleton C USHL (Tri-City Storm) Notre Dame Prep (Wisconsin HS)
Cody Milan F USHL (Tri-City Storm) Honeybaked Midget Major
Jerad Rosburg D USHL (Sioux City Musketeers) Ohio Blue Jackets AAA
Zach Osburn D USHL (Chicago Steel) Victory Honda Midget Major
Brennan Sanford F NAHL->USHL (Des Moines) Lansing Capitals AAA

In part two of this series I will look at NCAA eligibility and the NHL draft, and dive into Canada's junior system with regards to NCAA eligibility, and the eternal battle of NCAA vs. the CHL.