The rise of the USHL
A few months back, in response to a few reader questions on the USHL, I dropped a note in the email inbox of USA Hockey Magazine editor-in-chief Harry Thompson with a few questions about the league.
He handed me off to the organization's communications staff, a few nice public relations staff members left messages at my home and, well, I never ended up connecting with them. I return a lot of phone calls on my day job... unfortunately, the blog gets pushed aside on things like this.
But what I did receive was a note from Kyle Kosior, the assistant to the president of the USHL (who also happens to be a blogger), and a copy of the league's 2007-08 yearbook. It's a pretty handy guide, something that answers an awful lot of the questions I and a few readers here had about the league.
Why is the USHL important, you might ask? Well, just take a gander at the 2007 entry draft: It was sprinkled with nearly 30 grads of the league, a sure sign of an important new development arena for the NHL. Despite the fact it's based basically in the Midwest, the USHL has essentially taken on the role of a major junior league in the United States.
As of 2002, it has USA Hockey's only Tier I designation, making the 12-team league the country's top level of hockey for junior-aged players. Unlike Canada's major junior leagues, however, the USHL "conforms to all NCAA rules regarding maintenance of NCAA hockey eligibility," something that has led to the league being a real feeder into college hockey. (So much so that gone are the days of the top American college clubs being stocked with top Canadian players.)
In short, the American development system is getting better, it's getting bigger and there are more top players coming out of the U.S. It's happened recently enough that we haven't seen a major impact at the senior international tournaments, but it is coming.
There's a reason we've seen Americans drafted back-to-back at No. 1 overall for the first time ever in 2006 and 2007, and there are even suggestions the USHL could become the fourth branch of the Canadian Hockey League.
(Insert your own 'wow' here.)
The 12 teams are:
Cedar Rapids Roughriders (Iowa)
Chicago Steel (Illinois)
De Moines Buccaneers (Iowa)
Green Bay Gamblers (Wisconsin)
Indiana Ice (Indianapolis)
Lincoln Stars (Nebraska)
Ohio Junior Blue Jackets (Columbus)
Omaha Lancers (Iowa)
Sioux City Musketeers (Iowa)
Sioux Falls Stampede (South Dakota)
Tri-City Storm (Nebraska)
Waterloo Black Hawks (Iowa)
That's a whole lotta Iowa (especially given only two of the league's players are listed as being from the state).
This is interesting country for a top junior league to sprout up, and there have certainly growing pains. I expect league brass to counter this statement, but attendance isn't particularly strong in the league, with announced totals in the 2,000 to 3,000 per game range and paid totals somewhat lower.
Still, the fact so many NHL draftees are headed to these places is noteworthy. This is a league that has given us players like Sam Gagner, Paul Stastny, Matt Carle, Thomas Vanek, Danny Richmond, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Keith Ballard, Matt Greene, Matt Jones, Tom Gilbert, Andrew Alberts, Brandon Bochenski, Rostislav Klesla, Dan Ellis, Jeff Finger, Erik Cole, Tyler Arnason, John Pohl, Ben Clymer, Joe Corvo and Scott Clemmensen in the past 10 years.
For a startup, that's not insignificant.
What's also interesting is the number of current or former NHLers' sons who play in the league. Stastny's a prominent example, but looking through the guidebook at this year's rosters, there are quite a few kids with last names like Verbeek, Olczyk, Chelios, Arniel, etc., currently playing.
(I often wonder if the future prowess of USA Hockey may lie in the fact that so many Canadian players' sons will grow up American.)
And there are other NHL connections, too: Steve Poapst coaches the Chicago team, and former Columbus GM Doug MacLean's son plays for the Junior Blue Jackets. Phil Kessel's younger brother is also currently in the league.
What I found interesting, and it's something that speaks to the level of hockey being played, is that many players come from states (and countries) outside of the Midwest to play in the league. A breakdown:
What's noteworthy, too, is just how many of the players are coming from nontraditional player-producing markets: 21 from California (6.3% of the entire league), three from Florida, two from Georgia, two from Oklahoma, four from Texas, one each from Virgina and West Virginia and one from Washington, D.C.
Now, I've never seen any USHL games or even been to Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, etc., but I'm certainly interested in the league as it pertains to the future of USA Hockey and the NHL. If any league or team officials, or even any fans or interested observers, would like to chat with me about the league, please feel free to drop me an email.