Are you interested in playing junior hockey?
If so, this guide will cover everything for you from how to play juniors (based on your skill level) all the way to the pros/cons of various junior hockey leagues.
Even if you’re just interested in understanding the junior levels and hierarchy part, you’ll learn quite a bit in this post…
Table of contents:
- How can I play junior hockey?
- Junior Hockey Leagues
- Major Junior Hockey
- Canadian Junior A Hockey
- Canadian Junior B Hockey
- Canadian Junior C Hockey
- Independent Junior Hockey Leagues
- Junior Hockey Leagues in the US
- Tier 1 Jr A Hockey
- Tier 2 junior hockey
- Tier 3 junior hockey
- Junior Hockey Leagues in Europe
- Do you get paid to play junior hockey?
- What age are junior hockey players?
- How much does it cost to play junior hockey?
- Best Junior Hockey Leagues
- Is Junior Hockey worth it?
Let’s get started…
How can I play junior hockey?
Before we try to help you answer this question, it’s important that we first define what junior hockey is…
Because the term junior hockey is used to describe a wide assortment of leagues from major junior in Canada all the way down to Tier III in the US. You also have various junior hockey leagues in Europe.
In most cases, junior hockey is considered amateur unless we are referring to major junior hockey (WHL, OHL, QMJHL).
Players who play major junior in Canada are not considered amateurs….we’ll cover this a bit more in depth later in this article.
So how does one go about playing junior hockey….
This will depend heavily on:
- your skillset/ability- your level of play will help determine where you may (or may not) fit in terms of junior leagues.
- access to get yourself in front of a prospective club (scouting, driving to hockey tryouts, and so on)
- your age
The first thing you (or any player) can do to improve the likelihood of playing junior hockey is by playing well at the current level you’re playing at. This could be AAA travel hockey….prep….high school hockey….or maybe even a lower level of juniors.
Not only will this provide you with more opportunity to get noticed….but it will also build up your confidence.
It’s important to mention here though that just because you play well at one level….does not always mean you’re good enough to play at another level.
For example, we’ll hear from a parent who thinks their kid who’s playing average level high school hockey can magically make a jump up to a top Tier I Junior A or even an NCAA program….this isn’t realistic at all.
Luckily, most players and parents understand the progression and reality more than in the example I shared above.
There are necessary steps in between those levels....it's usually junior hockey.
If you’re a top player, you’ll likely get scouted/drafted by one of the top junior leagues….
Many young players don’t fall into this bucket though for a number of reasons.
Maybe you’re a late bloomer (quite common) or have lack of access to play for the top travel team which can unfortunately inhibit your ability to be seen (due financial reasons, availability, etc).
If this is the case, you need to do everything in your power now to try to create an opportunity (and luck) for yourself.
Over the years, we’ve helped a number of junior players earn opportunities by providing them with the right access and professional resources.
Three great ways for any player, including you, can use to create more opportunity (and luck) for yourself are:
- working hard to find extra ice time to work on skills (most rinks have designated ice slots for skills time).
- hockey specific gym training- whether at home on your own or a gym, this work adds up. Notice we said “hockey specific.” Arm curls might help you out at the beach, but they won’t translate over to the ice unless you have a strong base (legs, core) alongside it. You want to perform exercises and movements that make you a better athlete on the ice.
- work on your mental game- it sounds cliche, but improving your mental side of your game can be a huge unlock for any young player. This could start out with something as simple as a few minutes of positive visualization prior to a match (scoring a goal, making a save, stepping up when the big moment arises, and so on).
If you already do some of these above…great!
If not...consider implementing them into your routine.
Now that we’ve covered a bit on how to play junior hockey, we need to cover the where so that you can have a better understanding on the whereabouts of different leagues.
Junior Hockey Leagues
With an abundance of junior leagues all across N. America (and around the world), the best way for us to break down the hierarchy is by providing you with a combination of graphics (below) and grouping the leagues based on the level (major junior, Jr A, B, etc).
We’ll start with junior hockey in Canada...
Major Junior Hockey
At the top of the junior pyramid lie the 3 major junior leagues, which are:
- WHL- Western Hockey League
- OHL- Ontario Hockey League
- QMJHL- Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
From a development perspective, these are a few of the best junior hockey leagues in the world and the premier leagues based in Canada.
Quick note: a small handful of teams in the WHL & OHL are based in the US, but the far majority of clubs are based in Canada.
Many players in major junior hockey have aspirations to make it to The Show (NHL)...
A large majority though end up going on to complete university (while playing USports) or playing semi professional hockey in the minor leagues. Others take their game overseas to travel abroad while playing pro hockey in Europe after their junior career ends.
The game load and season schedule in major junior reflects more of a pro level (68 regular season games) compared to say the NCAA where they only play roughly around 1/2 that amount of matches total.
As we mentioned earlier, major junior players are not considered amateurs by the NCAA. This is due in part to the fact that players can make a small amount of money (stipends) and some have signed entry level deals with NHL clubs.
If you choose to play major junior hockey, you lose your NCAA eligibility.
Therefore, it’s important for players to weight their options carefully when deciding whether to play major junior or NCAA.
Luckily you have USports (formerly CIS) in Canada which is the equivalent to NCAA hockey in the states….it’s a common route many players take after aging out where they can continue to play hockey while receiving a high quality education.
Underneath major junior in Canada, you have Junior A hockey.
Canadian Jr A Hockey
There are currently 10 leagues that make up Canadian Junior A Hockey:
- AJHL- Alberta Junior Hockey League
- MJHL- Manitoba Junior Hockey League
- BCHL- British Colombia Hockey League
- SJHL- Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League
- SIJHL- Superior International Junior Hockey League
- CCHL- Central Canada Hockey League
- MHL- Maritime Junior Hockey League
- NOJHL- Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League
- OJHL- Ontario Junior Hockey League
- QJHL- Quebec Junior Hockey League
Following the Junior A leagues across the provinces of Canada, you have junior B hockey in Canada.
Canadian Junior B Hockey Leagues
There are currently 19 Junior B hockey leagues spread across the country. This means there are a number of high quality Junior B hockey leagues here for players to play in.
The current Jr B leagues in Canada are:
- VIJHL- Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League
- GOJHL- Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League
- KIJHL- Kootenay International Junior Hockey League
- HJHL- Heritage Junior Hockey League
- CapJHL- Capital Junior Hockey League
- NEAJHL- North Eastern Alberta Junior Hockey League
- PJHL- Prairie Junior Hockey League
- NWJHL- North West Junior Hockey League
- EOJHL- Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League
- PIJHL- Provincial Junior Hockey League
- KJHL- Keystone Junior Hockey League
- LJHL- Lakehead Junior Hockey League
- SJJHL- St. John`s Junior Hockey League
- NSJHL- Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League
- IsJHL- Island Junior Hockey League
- CAJAAHL- Chaudiére-Appalaches Junior AA HL
- LHC- Ligue de Hockey de la Capitale
- LHJSLSJ- Ligue de Hockey de la Capitale
- LHMJAA- Metropolitaine Junior AA Hockey League
A number of top Junior B players go on to play major junior, university, and a few eventually make it to the pro levels.
Now that we’ve covered Jr B, let’s move on to Jr C...
Junior C Hockey in Canada
There are currently 9 sanctioned Jr C hockey leagues across Canada.
The current junior C leagues in Canada are:
- HTJHL- Hanover Tache Junior Hockey League
- QVJHL- Qu'Appelle Valley Junior C Hockey League
- NCJHL- National Capital Junior Hockey League
- NBJHL- New Brunswick Junior Hockey League
- PEIJCHL- Prince Edward Island Junior C Hockey League
- CalJCHL- Calgary Junior C Hockey League
- NorJHL- Noralta Junior C Hockey League
- PJCHL- Provincial Junior Hockey League
- NSRJHL- Nova Scotia Regional Hockey League
Before we move onto junior hockey in the US, it’s important we quickly cover a few of the Independent junior leagues.
Independent Junior Hockey Leagues
Independent junior leagues are ones that aren't sanctioned by either of the main governing bodies, which are USA Hockey or Hockey Canada depending on where the junior league is located.
Those independent leagues are:
- GMHL- Greater Metro Jr. A Hockey League
- NSHL- Northern States Hockey League (couple teams located in the US)
- MMJHL- Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League
- CPJHL- Canadian Premier Junior Hockey League
Independent junior leagues such as the GMHL are known for rostering many European players who have interest in the experience of playing junior hockey in North America.
Later in this post, we’ll cover how to best evaluate the quality of a junior league.
Junior Hockey Leagues in the US
The junior hockey hierarchy in the United States is a bit different than in Canada.
Why is that?
Unlike in Canada where major junior sits at the top with various Jr A through Jr C below it, in the US you have 3 tiers which are governed by USA Hockey.
Tier 1 Jr A Hockey
The top junior league in the US is without a doubt the USHL (United States Hockey League).
With 20 full seasons as a league as of the 2021-22 season, the USHL regularly produces dozens of NHL draft picks year after year. In the 2021 NHL Draft year alone, they had 50 players selected.
Hundreds of USHL alumni have played in the NHL over the years.
There are many junior leagues who commit players to the NCAA, but the USHL is the undisputed leader in college hockey commitments.
Following the USHL closely regarding top junior leagues in the US, you have the NAHL (North American Hockey League) and the NCDC respectively.
Tier 2 Junior Hockey
The NAHL and NCDC are sanctioned Tier II leagues by USA Hockey.
Much like the USHL, both junior leagues produce a healthy number of NCAA commitments each season.
In case you’re not familiar with junior hockey at this level, you might be under the impression at first glance that Tier II must not be a high level of junior hockey.
This certainly is not the case….
NAHL player advancement is a testament to the quality of the league. It’s ultra competitive to both be scouted by and to make a roster on one of these clubs. Luckily, there’s a number of other quality jr leagues in the next tier that we’re going to cover.
Tier 3 Junior Hockey
Tier III juniors in the US currently consists of these five leagues:
- EHL- Eastern Hockey League
- NA3HL- North American 3 Hockey League
- USPHL Premier
- USPHL Elite
- EHLP- Eastern Hockey League Premier
Within this grouping, we’ll also include the following league since it is a combination of Tier II/III.
- WSHL- Western States Hockey League
The WSHL is a junior hockey league with clubs based in the western half of the United States as well as a few clubs in Canada.
It’s known as a league that rosters a wide assortment of junior players from a wide set of regions.
Top tier players from many of these leagues in this grouping go on to play college hockey both at the NCAA Division 1 & 3 levels.
Some may fit better at the ACHA level if NCAA isn’t in the cards.
A percentage of players opt to skip university altogether after juniors and make the jump directly to European hockey leagues.
Junior Hockey Leagues in Europe
In Europe, the end goal for most young players growing up is to play for their top pro club.
Junior hockey is a stepping stone to the pro level...
Most European pro hockey teams have junior programs that sit underneath the pro clubs. They exist as solid feeder/development leagues.
These levels of junior hockey in Europe allow players to gain the necessary experience and maturity needed to hopefully make the jump to the big club.
In Sweden junior hockey for example, you have J20 Nationell (formerly SuperElit), J20 Region, J20 Division 1, and J20 Division 2.
J20 Nationell is the top level of junior hockey in all of Sweden.
Below the J20 level, you have various J18 and U16 leagues.
Many hockey countries within the EU (whether it’s Finland, Germany, etc) have similar structures to this with their junior clubs feeding up to their professional teams.
Do you get paid to play junior hockey?
Depending on the junior league you’re playing in, the financial conditions can vary greatly.
In a Tier I sanctioned junior league such as the USHL, players do not pay to play there (it’s completely free). All training, on ice development, equipment, housing, and travel are covered by the USHL club.
The same holds true mostly in the NAHL, with the exception of a small monthly housing fee (roughly $300/mo) paid by the player. This goes towards billet family expenses during the season.
As you move down the levels of junior hockey, some clubs may cover all, part, or none of the expenses on behalf of the player depending on the leagues governing rules and also based on the clubs budget.
If you are a top player, you may get a few extra perks to incentivize you to play there…but it’s important to note though that since most junior players are amateurs, clubs have to abide by league rules...
What age are junior hockey players?
Whether you’re looking to play juniors in the US or Canada, junior aged players generally range from age 16-20 years old.
There’s a few exceptions to this….a number of leagues have an over-age rule to 21 (example: Junior C in Ontario allows a few 21 year old players to be rostered).
How much does it cost to play junior hockey?
Depending on the junior league, the average cost to play per season can range anywhere from free (ex: USHL) up to well over a few thousand dollars per season. This may or may not include player housing (billets) which usually cost a few hundred dollars per month.
Our advice: if a junior league you're interested in costs an exorbitant amount more than this, it's best to always double check and ask what the team fees/costs cover.
Best Junior Hockey Leagues
What’s the best junior hockey league?
That’s a good question.
As mentioned earlier in this post, the 3 major junior leagues are the top leagues in Canada…..followed by Jr A (BCHL, AJHL, etc)
In the United States, the USHL is the top jr league (and the hardest to play in).
Comparing the exact level of play from one junior league to the next is tough. Hopefully the league groupings we’ve shared above in this post help paint a clearer picture for you.
When comparing mid level junior in the US and Canada, it’s safe to say that the level of good Jr B hockey teams in Canada is quite similar to the level of good Tier II junior A in parts of the US.
This isn’t always the case, but it’s a suitable way to describe it.
Is junior hockey worth it?
Yes, most times it is….but it ultimately depends on what your goals are.
Is your aim to eventually play college hockey (NCAA/USports), to play pro overseas in a European league, or something else….
If you’re coming out of AAA or quality high school hockey, juniors is the natural step to make it to the next level.
The average age of a freshmen NCAA hockey player in North America is over 20 years old.
Unlike the other 3 major college sports (football, basketball, baseball), the hockey development path is set up in such a way where it’s most common for players to play juniors before college.
Travel hockey/AAA/high school -> juniors -> university hockey.
This structure allows players to gain 1-2 full years of additional experience.
Look at any NCAA Division 1 or 3 roster and you’ll find that the majority of players have some form of junior hockey played prior to college hockey.
When deciding if junior hockey is worth it for you, it’s important to try to play in a league that helps place players at higher levels if your skill set allows it (ex: NCAA, Europe, NHL). If a junior team has been around for many years and hasn’t placed any players at higher levels, I would question whether you’ll end up in the same spot.
It’s also important to play on a junior team that treats players well, both on and off the ice.
The years you play junior hockey are formative years that should be fun, rich in development, and full of growth. A solid experience playing junior hockey will set you on the best path into adulthood….whether you goal is pro hockey or just to continue playing the game you love a little longer.
If you have any questions on the how or where to play junior hockey based on your personal situation, feel free to reach out and contact us here.
We’ll try to provide you with the most candid guidance that we can…whether that’s us helping, another agency, or something else entirely.