By Nate Ewell and Sean Hogan
The paths to NCAA Division I men’s hockey can be winding, with a veritable alphabet soup of NCAA-eligible junior leagues leading to the college ranks.
The vast majority of Division I players will play in one of those junior leagues – with the USHL, NAHL and BCHL producing the most players. To try to clarify those paths, College Hockey Inc. studied each of the 1,600-plus men’s Division I players and looked at not only their junior leagues, but where they played prior to junior hockey.
A few key findings stand out in the results of that study:
- While paths vary widely, clear themes emerge when looking geographically at where players are raised.
- Wherever players are from, patience is required, with very few players making the jump to junior hockey at age 16.
- Most players will not commit to a Division I school until playing NCAA-eligible junior hockey after high school, exactly in line with the study we conducted last year.
“These facts are critically important for every player, parent and coach to understand,” said Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director, Hockey Development. “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Focus on your own development. You have your own, unique path.”
The Data: Junior Hockey Before NCAA
Working our way backwards from college – which players began, on average, at age 20.3 – finds most players playing in an NCAA-eligible junior league the year prior to college.
In the United States, geography isn’t much of a factor. The vast majority of U.S. players spend the year before college in the USHL or NAHL.
Listed below are the top 15 states in producing NCAA Division I men’s players; click on each state to see which junior leagues those players played in immediately prior to college:
A few geographic tendencies emerge; players in the Northeast are more likely to play in prep school prior to college, for example. But even there, the USHL and NAHL reign.
Canada’s junior A leagues, which are organized provincially, logically have more geographic tendencies.
While each region sent players to college through the BCHL and AJHL, the leading source was typically in the home province. Most Ontario natives, for example, played in the OJHL immediately prior to enrollment.
Click on the province name below to sort the columns by their most common paths to the NCAA (Atlantic provinces are combined):
|US Prep School||2||2|
The Data: Which League Before Junior Hockey?
What isn’t always as clear – and isn’t readily available on NCAA rosters – is where players played prior to junior hockey.
Our study dives into that subject and finds that, once again, geography plays a big role in most players’ paths.
In the United States alone, the three states producing the most NCAA players each have distinctive paths to junior hockey:
- Minnesota’s players primarily play high school hockey;
- Michigan’s players play 18U and, before that, 16U;
- Massachusetts’s players most often play in prep schools.
Listed below are the 15 states producing the most NCAA players; click on each state to see where those players played prior to junior hockey:
This data also emphasizes the need for patience as players pursue junior hockey. Many expect to make the jump after playing 16U, but more experience is often necessary. More than twice as many players come to juniors from 18U than 16U. Similarly, most high school players play through their senior year before heading to junior hockey.
In Canada, most players play in provincial midget leagues prior to junior hockey. A few other trends emerge, such as the popularity of U.S. prep schools in the eastern half of Canada.
Click on the province name below to sort the columns by their most common paths to junior hockey (Atlantic provinces are combined):
|US Prep School||1||1||2||9||13||15||41|
While all of this adds up to the conclusion that there’s no one path to the NCAA, we can learn more from case studies.
Take, for example, the top scorer in college hockey this season, Providence’s Jack Dugan. The Rochester, N.Y., native played high school hockey before moving on to prep school, as more than half of all New York natives in Division I did.
Dugan committed to Providence while at the Northwood School, between his 18th and 19th birthdays. The nation’s leading scorer was almost exactly in line with the average age of commitment of all Division I players (18.9).
After being drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights, Dugan spent a year with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. From there he moved on to the Friars, starring for two seasons before signing with the Golden Knights this spring.
“Jack didn’t skip any development steps: he led the Northwood School in scoring, led the USHL in scoring and led the NCAA in scoring,” said Providence head coach Nate Leaman. “What was really key is that he was never in a hurry, and because of that he was successful.”
Dugan’s patience was evident as he moved up every rung, and it paid off with his success in college and an NHL contract.
“One of the keys to a successful college career is getting there when you are ready,” Leaman said. “If kids come in too early, they can struggle, and they might not have experience handling adversity like that.”
For USA Hockey’s McLaughlin, that patience fits in among the sport’s key development tenets.
“Stay home, go to school with your friends, play other sports, sleep in your own bed, eat dinner with your family and play locally as long as possible – and don’t fear that ‘you’re falling behind,’” he said. “Acknowledge that the average NCAA hockey freshman is 20 years old. Understand that the average NHL rookie is 22.5 years old. Patience is one of the most important factors to winning the race to your ‘right’ finish line.”
While every route is unique, that need for patience is emphasized in a closer look at the paths to the Division I level.