College Hockey Inc.
From Alberta to the NCAA: A frequently traveled path
A record 108 Albertans playing collegiately in 2023-24

2022 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Mike Benning (Photo: DU Athletics)

By Sean Hogan, Jayson Hajdu and Mike Snee

This article was originally published November 7, 2022. It has since been updated.

The path leading from the province of Alberta to NCAA Division I men’s hockey has arguably never been more prolific and productive. Nor has it ever been so easy to traverse.

This season there are 108 total men from Alberta playing NCAA Division I hockey, which is the most ever. In fact, Alberta trails only Ontario (186) among Canadian provinces that send men to NCAA Division I hockey. And if you consider population, there are more Albertans playing NCAA Division I men’s hockey in 2023-24 than any other province on a per capita basis.

Why are so many men from Alberta playing NCAA Division I hockey? It seems the answer is rooted in simplicity: the path is laid out for the player and is easily understood. Of the 108 Albertans playing men’s NCAA Division I hockey, 97 of them played in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

“Aspiring players from Alberta should take comfort in knowing that they can play minor hockey and college-eligible junior hockey in their home province and be seen frequently by coaches throughout college hockey,” said Calgary native, hockey coach and former University of North Dakota player Chris Leinweber. “Literally the only thing a young player from Alberta needs to do is play well.”

Besides the record number of Albertans playing NCAA Division I hockey this season, other noteworthy themes emerged from the Alberta study:

  • The average age at which an Albertan commits to his NCAA school is 19.4.
  • The average age of an NCAA Division I freshman from Alberta this season is 20.52.
  • The average age of all NCAA Division I players from Alberta this season is 22.21.
  • Every AJHL team has at least two former players playing NCAA Division I hockey this season.

Considering that the average age of an NHL rookie is older than 23, the typical NCAA timeline for a player from Alberta meshes nicely with professional hockey.

The Data: Hockey Before NCAA

So, what exactly is the frequently traveled path? It is a combination of minor hockey in the AEHL, followed by college-eligible junior hockey, most commonly in the AJHL. For example, at the age of 17, 80 percent of current NCAA players from Alberta were playing in one of two leagues – the Alberta Junior Hockey League or the Alberta Elite Hockey League (formerly the Alberta Midget Hockey League).

Where NCAA Albertans were playing at 17
League No.
U18 AAA 33

Where NCAA Albertans were playing at 19
League No.

Case Study I: Cale and Taylor Makar

The Makar brothers of Calgary, Cale and Taylor, are both very familiar with the heavily traveled path from minor hockey to the AJHL and then on to NCAA hockey.

Older brother Cale played one season of U18 AAA, followed by two seasons in the AJHL. Following his time in the AJHL, Makar became an instant collegiate star at UMass, earning all-conference honors – as well as World Junior gold – as a freshman before winning the Hobey Baker award as a sophomore. Now in his fifth NHL season with the Colorado Avalanche, Cale has already set a franchise single-season record for points by a defenseman (86), led the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup, and received both the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Younger brother Taylor has followed a similarly patient path, playing one season of U18 AAA hockey, followed by three seasons in the AJHL. He is currently a junior forward at UMass and led the Minutemen in goals in 2022-23.

“Like a lot of families with hockey playing sons in Alberta, we thought about the different opportunities our boys might have in hockey,” said Gary Makar, father of Cale and Taylor, “As a family, we kept coming back to the NCAA and what it would do for Cale and Taylor, both as hockey players and people.”

Case Study II: Matt and Mike Benning

Similar to the Makar brothers, the Benning brothers of St. Albert, Matt and Mike, are equally as familiar with the same path to NCAA hockey.

Matt, the older of the two, is a veteran NHL defenseman. His younger brother, Mike, is in his first year of pro hockey in the Florida Panthers organization. Matt spent two seasons in the AJHL on his way to Northeastern University. Now with the San Jose Sharks, he’s currently in his eighth NHL season. Mike also spent two years in the AJHL prior to three standout seasons at the University of Denver. He was the 2022 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player after leading DU to a national title.

“I’m not surprised that more and more NCAA players each season are coming from Alberta, and in particular the AJHL,” said Matt and Mike’s father, former NHL defenseman Brian Benning. “I saw firsthand with both of my sons how beneficial it was to play in the AJHL and how their experiences in the league continue to serve them well in the NCAA and the NHL. Young hockey players from Alberta who aspire to play in the NCAA are very fortunate that the path to NCAA hockey is easy to understand and close to home.”

As stated earlier, the path to NCAA hockey from Alberta is simple: an aspiring young player can have peace of mind knowing that if they live in Alberta, the path to NCAA hockey is already clearly laid out for them. The only variable is how well they play.

Rather than expending time and energy thinking about where to play, all physical and mental energy can be devoted to becoming the best hockey player possible, knowing the NCAA spotlight shines brightly on Alberta.

NOTE: College Hockey Inc. has produced five separate “paths” studies: a comprehensive examination in 2020, a goalie-specific analysis in 2021, in-depth looks at the states of Michigan and Minnesota, and now this fifth study focused specifically on the province of Alberta.