The NHL is the best professional hockey league in the world. However, every single NHL player has spent time in other leagues on their road to the NHL, and even after their NHL careers are over.
The list of leagues, including minor and professional, is a long one. We compiled information on all the important leagues across North America and summarized them in this handy guide. Tomorrow, we’ll cover all the leagues across the pond, including Europe, Asia, and beyond.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the North American hockey leagues.
American Hockey League (AHL)
The second highest professional league outside of the NHL, the AHL hosts 31 teams across Canada and the United States. Primarily, but not exclusively a development league, the AHL is home to a mixed bag of prospects that have finished junior or college hockey, as well as older players who are too good to be playing in other leagues.
The league has teams that have been around since the 1930’s, and some that have just come into existence in the last few years. It has tried to diversify into new markets, and relocated five teams into California after the 2015-16 season. This formed the Pacific Division, and is home to the AHL clubs of the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks.
Teams challenge for the Calder Cup, named after former NHL President Frank Calder. The reigning champion from the 2018-19 season is the Charlotte Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers. They defeated the the Chicago Wolves, the affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, to win.
The all time leading scorer in the AHL is Willie Marshall, who put up 1375 points in 1205 games.
Sitting just below the AHL is the ECHL, a lower professional league once known as the East Coast Hockey League. Unlike the AHL, there are only 26 teams, 25 of which have NHL affiliated clubs. The Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, St Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets do not have affiliated teams. The only unaffiliated team is the Norfolk Admirals, who are based out of Virginia.
Founded by teams from the Atlantic Coast Hockey League and the All-American Hockey League, the ECHL has been around since 1988. There has been a lot of interplay between the league and the AHL. When the AHL pushed into the Pacific Division, the three ECHL teams that were in California at the time relocated to the cities that the AHL vacated. The teams in Ontario, Bakersfield, and Stockton California moved to Norfolk Virginia, Manchester New Hampshire, and Adirondack New York respectively.
One of just two Canadian teams, the Newfoundland Growlers are the reigning champions of the ECHL. Affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, they defeated the Toledo Walleye, the affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, to win the Kelly Cup. The trophy is named after Patrick Kelly, the first commissioner of the league.
The leading scorer of all time in the ECHL is Louis Dumont. Born in Calgary, he put up 891 points. Interestingly, he never put up a point in the AHL.
Aside from seven NHL teams, Canada currently has four teams in the AHL as well as two teams in the ECHL, with the rest of the teams in those leagues across the United States.
The Canadian Hockey League (CHL)
The big development league in Canada is the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), which represents the three big major junior leagues in the country- the Quebec Major Junior League (QMJHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), and the Western Hockey League (WHL). With 60 teams spread out across the three leagues, it is a very large league that historically has made up a large chunk of the players drafted to the NHL. 18 of the 31 players taken in the first round of the 2020 Draft came out of the CHL.
The winners of each of the three leagues, along with the team of the host city play for the Memorial Cup. The four teams play a round robin to determine seeding, then teams 2/3 play each other in a one game elimination for the opportunity to play the top team in the finals. The Memorial Cup is seen as one of the toughest competitions to win because of the number of teams that are involved, and the shortness of the Cup itself.
The reigning champions of the Memorial Cup are the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies from the QMJHL, beating out the host Halifax Mooseheads, Guelph Storm, and Prince Albert Raiders.
The all time leading scorer in the CHL is Patrice Lefebvre with 595 career points in the QMJHL.
The Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL)
Below that is the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL). Formed when the leagues that would become the CHL broke away from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the CJHL is an amalgamation of the provincial hockey associations across the country. With 132 teams spread across ten leagues, it boasts a number of alumni that currently play in the NHL.
Like the CHL, the winners play in a championship, called the Centennial Cup. However, the CJHL takes five teams, the host team, Eastern Champion, Central Champion, Western Champion and Pacific Champion. The Eastern Champion is the winner of the Fred Page Cup, between the Central Canada Hockey League, Maritime Hockey League, Quebec Junior Hockey League, and a host team. The Central Champion is determined by the Dudley Hewitt Cup, between the winners of Ontario Junior Hockey League, Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, Superior International Junior Hockey League, and the host team. The Western Champion is determined by the winner of the ANAVET Cup, between the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Junior Hockey Leagues. Finally, the Pacific Champion is the winner of the Doyle Cup, which is determined by the winner of a game between the top team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and the British Columbia Hockey League.
A number of young players have gotten their starts in the CJHL after being drafted into the CHL. While it is not an official development partner like the AHL is to the NHL, a number of young prospects start here before getting the call up to the CHL. Players like Jamie Benn and Sidney Crosby both played briefly in this league. While it is rare for a player to play their junior career entirely in the CJHL, a number start there before moving to the NCAA, including Cale Makar.
The all time leading scorer in the CJHL is Luc Chabot who scored 490 career points for the Pembroke Lumber Kings.
The Canadian University leagues, USports, also has a strong following. While it tends to include mostly undrafted former junior hockey players, it has produced a few NHL players including Joel Ward of the Minnesota Wild.
Broken down into three conferences, the league boasts 36 teams across the country that compete for the David Johnston University Cup, named after the former Canadian Governor General.
The conferences are broken down into conferences by region, with eight teams in the Atlantic, nine teams in the Canadian West, and 20 teams in the Ontario division (which also includes Quebec). The Ontario division is broken down into an East and West division.
The most successful team has been the University of Alberta Golden Bears, which was once home to current Calgary Flame Derek Ryan. However the Golden Bears came up just short in the 2019 championship (2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic), losing to the University of New Brunswick Reds.
The all time leading scorer in the CIS is Russell Hewson who scored 342 career points with the University of Alberta.
Aside from the AHL and ECHL, which are the development leagues below the NHL, the United States has a number of major hockey leagues.
United States Hockey League (USHL)
The USHL is the top junior league in the country. Made up of 16 teams, it is special in that it allows former players to go play in the NCAA after completing the junior program. It has been extremely successful in producing top prospects, including former number draft pick Jack Hughes.
With 16 teams scattered across the Midwestern United States, they are typically located in smaller cities. The most unique thing about the league is that one of the teams is the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. Boasting numerous NHL alumni including 17 picks in the 2019 draft, the US NTDP has never won the Clark Cup, the championship trophy in the USHL.
The all time leading scorer in the USHL is Rod Taylor who scored 244 points with the Waterloo Black Hawks and Sioux City Musketeers.
United States High School (USHS)
The USHS is an amalgomation of different high school leagues across the country. With leagues in most states, arguably the best known is the USHS-Prep, which boasts over 50 teams broken up into six divisions across the Northeastern United States.
There have been hundreds of NHL players who have played in the USHS including Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, and even more who have played in various USHS leagues across the country.
The all time leading scorer in the USHS-Prep is Jared Cantanucci who scored 408 points with Shattuck St. Mary’s 18U Prep.
North American Hockey League (NAHL)
The NAHL is a secondary league in the US. Founded in 1975, the league boasts 23 teams across the country and exists as an alternative to the USHL. The league is broken down into four divisions, Central, East, Midwest, and South, and has teams from as far north as Alaska and as far south as Texas.
Teams play for the Robertson Cup Championship, which is named for Chuck Robertson, a pioneer of hockey in the Michigan. Unawarded in 2020, the current champions are the Aberdeen Wings from South Dakota.
The NAHL was once home to NHL greats like Mike Modano and Doug Weight, but has been less successful of late. Most recently, Pheonix Copley of the St Louis Blues played in the league between 2010 and 2011.
The all time leading scorer in the NAHL is Ryan Fultz who scored 246 points with the Springfield Jr. Blues, Soo Indians, and Cleveland Barons.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
The American college league, the NCAA has a long history of producing NHL stars. There are 60 teams in the first division who play in 6 divisions spread across the country. Only Arizona State University is independent, but will be playing against the Big Ten Conference for the 2020-21 season.
Spread across the country, teams play for a chance to play in the Frozen Four. The top four teams in each region get a chance to play in a single elimination bracketed tournament, with the winner being crowned the Division I Champion. The most recent winners are the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, which had Boston Bruins prospect Nick Wolff.
The top player in the league is awarded the Hobey Baker Award. Many recent winners have gone on to have successful NHL careers including Johnny Gaudreau, Ryan Miller, and Paul Kariya.
The all time leading scorer in the NCAA is Tom Ross who scored 324 points with Michigan State University.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of the guide that covers the leagues from the rest of the world.