United States ice hockey structure
|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (December 2009)|
The United States ice hockey structure includes elements from traditional American scholastic high school and college athletics, affiliated and independent minor leagues, and the unique "Major Junior" leagues.
Minor hockey in the United States is played below the junior age level (16 years old). Players are classified by age, with each age group playing in its own league. The rules, especially as it relates to body contact, vary from class to class. Unlike most American sports, athletes participate as part of clubs as opposed to schools.
Junior and Major Junior hockey
Junior hockey is played by athletes between 16 and 20 years old. The leagues are normally organized on a franchise system, and can play many more games than are normally played at the high school or college level. Major Junior hockey is organized into three leagues run by the Canadian Hockey League with most teams in Canada, but with teams in the states of Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Major Junior players lose NCAA eligibility because they have agents, sign contracts and are given stipends. Two "Junior A" leagues based in the United States, USHL and NAHL, are run in a similar fashion to the Major Junior teams except that the players keep NCAA eligibility. The majority of current NHL players played Major Junior hockey. For a while, some NHL teams had agreements with amateur teams to help them develop players that would later play professionally, however this practice was stopped when the NHL expanded in 1967.
High school hockey
High schools in some states compete in sanctioned ice hockey leagues sponsored by State High School Association while other state compete in leagues not sponsored by their State High School Association. Typically, sponsored leagues exist in regions where ice hockey is traditionally popular, such as the Great Lakes Region (e.g., Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio) and the New England Region (e.g., Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) while non-sponsored leagues typically exist in less traditional ice hockey regions, such as the Southeast Region and Rocky Mountain Region. However, some exceptions do exist, such as Colorado having a sponsored league and Illinois having a non-sponsored league.
Ice hockey's role within the United States college athletics system is closest to college baseball in that most NHL hockey players play Major Junior hockey, and so aren't eligible for NCAA play. The NCAA currently has two divisions for ice hockey, Division I and Division III. There are multiple Division I leagues (Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Atlantic Hockey Association, Hockey East and ECAC Hockey) which sponsor only ice hockey. The Big Ten Conference is currently the only traditional multi-sport conference to sponsor ice hockey. With Penn State ice hockey joining NCAA Division I hockey, the Big 10 Conference elected to sponsor an men's ice hockey league since it attained the NCAA mandated minimum six members for a sport. However, six of the eight Ivy Leagueschools sponsor Division I ice hockey for both sexes, but the conference does not directly operate a hockey league. The Ivy League's hockey programs compete along with those of six other schools in ECAC Hockey, with the Ivy League crowning its own champion based on performance in games involving Ivy League teams.
The separate American Collegiate Hockey Association was formed in 1991 in order to support uniform standards for college and university non-varsity club teams.
Minor league professional hockey
There have been professional ice hockey leagues of varying levels since the invention of the sport, and over time the leagues have settled into an informal hierarchy. Today, the 30 teams of the American Hockey League have affiliation agreements with NHL teams, so it is considered to be the highest-level minor league. Most of the teams of the ECHL have affiliation agreements with NHL and AHL teams, and some of the Central Hockey League teams are affiliated. Players are often sent from an NHL team to an AHL team, but teams are never promoted or relegated.
National Hockey League
The NHL is widely considered to be the premier professional ice hockey league in the world, and one of the major North American professional sports leagues. The Stanley Cup, the oldest professional sports trophy in North America, is awarded annually to the league playoff champion at the end of each season.