Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A look at the USHL

On Frozen Blog has an interesting take on the USHL today, calling for one of the American junior league's franchises to setup shop in Washington, D.C.:
The pipeline for Major Junior hockey talent in the States is irrefutably promising and on the upswing. And at present, in its tiny geographical haven, the USHL is cluttering, virtually annually, the NHL Entry Draft’s top few rounds, leading a lot of folks in American hockey circles today to ask this question: what would happen if the USHL continued to expand . . . especially if it went to the unconquered, comparatively hockey-mad East?

Fargo, incidentally, boasts a population of 74,000. Washington of course isn’t anywhere near as hockey-crazed (except in its per capita tally of puck bloggers); it hasn’t, for instance, hosted a World Under-20 tourney. But soon it is hosting a Frozen Four, and with a GMA population exceeding 5 million, does D.C. really need to be puck crazy to support another hockey team?
It's an interesting question, and the rise of the USHL makes me wonder how the number of Americans going to Canadian major junior will be impacted in the future. (Although, to be entirely accurate, USHL grads are perhaps sprinkling the entry draft more than "cluttering" it. Twenty-one were picked in the 2007 draft out of 210 players, including three late in the first round. The CHL had 97. Most USHL picks remain in the later, long-shot rounds.)

Notables to have recently come from the league include Thomas Vanek, Matt Carle, Joe Pavelski, Keith Ballard, Rostislav Klesla, Erik Cole and Joe Corvo. Some of these players were recruited into Canadian major junior after showing promise in the USHL.

Phil Housley and Gary Suter were two of the first NHLers to come from the league back in the early 1980s, while Vanek, Kyle Okposo and Blake Wheeler are three USHL players drafted in the top six picks of recent drafts.

The league averages around 3,000 fans per game in 12 different cities throughout the Midwest.

Personally, I'm for any chance for players to stay as close to home as possible when it comes to sports development, as it's an awful lot to ask of a 15- or 16-year-old player from, say, Long Beach, California, to move all the way to Prince George, B.C., just to pursue an unlikely career in hockey. The USHL gives some players that chance (although many players are still coming from well outside of the league's home base).

The American development system has improved by leaps and bounds from where it was even 10 years ago, and there are far more youths playing hockey in that country than ever before. Hockey's not yet a truly global game, and it doesn't draw from many well-populated countries — all four of Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia combine for less than Canada's small population base — and with Russia's development system in shambles, the U.S. remains the only really large country producing players.

Ten years from now, it's likely hockey's Top 7 group of international powers will be dominated by the two North American countries, and the USHL's rise is just one example of where that lift is coming from.

Top 20 hockey countries (w/ population):

IIHF rank Country Population % of world
1 Sweden 9,150,000 0.14%
2 Canada 32,996,300 0.49%
3 Finland 5,290,000 0.08%
4 Czech Republic 10,306,709 0.15%
5 Russia 142,499,000 2.14%
6 Slovakia 5,390,000 0.08%
7 United States 302,495,015 4.53%
8 Switzerland 7,484,000 0.11%
9 Belarus 9,689,000 0.15%
10 Latvia 2,277,000 0.03%
11 Germany 82,314,900 1.23%
12 Denmark 5,550,000 0.08%
13 Italy 59,131,287 0.89%
14 Norway 4,770,000 0.07%
15 Ukraine 46,205,000 0.69%
16 Kazakhstan 15,422,000 0.23%
17 Austria 8,316,487 0.12%
18 Slovenia 2,030,000 0.03%
19 France 64,102,140 0.96%
20 Poland 38,125,479 0.57%

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At 5:39 p.m., August 21, 2007, Blogger saskhab said...

Good post. DC is one of my favorite cities, so I'm behind anything hockey-related there. Although I almost think a junior hockey team would do better in the suburbs than in DC proper... maybe across the Potomac in Virginia? I don't know how many rinks there are in the area, or how much capacity is needed for a USHL franchise to be moved to an area.

At 6:50 p.m., August 21, 2007, Anonymous Frank said...

James, I'm unsure of how the USHL fits into the US development system. Could you please explain it?

I always thought up to 18 most guys played High School hockey and then went on to the NCAA. I know that High School hockey is very big in Minnesota, North Dakota, Mass.and several other states.

I also thought that the most talented 16 to 18 year olds went to play with the national under 18 program and then on to the NCAA.

So how does the USHL fit into this picture? I apologize for my ignorance on this.

At 7:13 p.m., August 21, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Frank - I'm going to have to do another post on how the development system works, but essentially the USHL functions as the country's top developmental league, one which recruits some of the best players from across the country. There isn't high school hockey everywhere in the U.S., and players are often too spread out in non-traditional areas to ice teams that would be good enough for the top talents.

The real answer is that players can develop in either high school hockey or the USHL, but with the latter becoming more heavily scouted, players likely have a better chance of being drafted into the NHL or given an NCAA scholarship playing in the USHL. And since the USHL is a 20-and-under league, players can get free room and board and play in a top league after high school.

At 9:36 p.m., August 21, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...


Top talent has been leaving Minnesota (and Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest, but without as much angst) high schools in droves. It's now rare for a player to go directly from high school to one of the top NCAA programs. Mostly, they play their last year or two of high school in the USHL, living with host families, rather than for the school. Others, generally the next tier down, graduate from high school, and then play a year in the USHL before going on to college.

This has produced a lot of anguish in Minnesota, where some of the thrill has gone out of the high school tournament, since everyone knows that the best players are elsewhere. Transfer rules probably also had something to do with it.

Vanek, Kyle Okposo and Blake Wheeler

All Gophers, I might add.

As for the point of the original article, I don't think it would work so well. Minor league sports generally don't do well in large US cities.* This is as true of the USHL as anyone else. The St. Paul Vulcans disappeared from the league years ago because of a lack of interest. Minor sports leagues only thrive where the community can really identify with them, and they aren't overwhelmed by something else. Relatively small, midwestern (i.e. not so close to a big city that that's the identification) cities are the best possible fit for a league like the USHL. Would it work elsewhere? Maybe, but the fact that it succeeds in Dubuque isn't really a good indicator of that.

*Yes, I understand that the St. Paul Saints independent league baseball team is a counterexample. Had they not started operation right before the 1994 baseball strike and captured a disgruntled fan base from the beginning, I suspect it wouldn't still be a going concern. Also, Mike Veeck isn't going to be around to do the promotions for every team in existence.

At 10:48 p.m., August 21, 2007, Blogger danae said...

DC would be unrealistic from a geographic standpoint. The USHL is a bus league and travel costs are a major concern.

essentially the USHL functions as the country's top developmental league

By way of further explanation, I'd append that definition with "in which players retain their NCAA eligibility", a point alluded to in the post. The CHL (with several teams located in the US) is more competitive, but USA Hockey gives little visibility to American players in major junior and instead encourages its best to go the USHL/NCAA route.

At 10:57 p.m., August 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about DC but I think they could get more teams in Michigan. With Fargo I think they're up to 13 teams, maybe do a west/east divisional thing if they can get up to 16.

At 1:27 p.m., August 22, 2007, Anonymous Frank said...

James and J Michael Neil - thanks for the info. I think I now better understand the US development system.

I guess I'm just getting out of date. I used to spend a lot of time in Minneapolis about 15 years ago on businees and remember how big high school hockey was there with the annual tournament.

However, I do have one further question. It appears to me that the USHL and CHL are almost identical in how they operate and treat their players. Why then are USHL players eligible for NCAA scholarships but CHL players are ineligible?

At 1:30 p.m., August 22, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

That's a great question. I've got a message into USA Hockey and I'm going to have a post on this as soon as they get back to me.

At 1:49 p.m., August 22, 2007, Blogger danae said...

Major junior players receive a monthly stipend (which amounts to less than $200/mo for most players). The NCAA therefore considers the CHL "pro" leagues. Perhaps an oversimplified answer but that's the crux of if. I look forward to hearing what USAH has to say.

At 12:28 a.m., August 23, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Don't get me started on the administration of the NCAA . . .


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