Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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.

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At 7:59 a.m., November 14, 2007, Blogger Ryan said...

nice entry, I enjoyed reading it.

The attendance minimum for Tier I is 1,800 I believe, so attendance is doing quite well, outside of Ohio and Chicago, of course.

Most of the arenas in the USHL aren't capable of holding more than 4,500 people. Green Bay, Omaha, Sioux City, and Indiana are a few exceptions (Lincoln holds 4,610.) The teams just mentioned, minus Lincoln, all have newer facilities, where the rest of the league plays in older rinks that don't hold nearly as many as new arenas do. I want to say Cedar Rapids and Waterloo max out at around 3,500 fans and that might be close for Des Moines as well. Chicago plays in the Blackhawks old practice facility, so it doesn't hold a whole lot of people. Ohio plays in the Dispatch Ice Haus, which is a practice rink connected to Nationwide and holds roughly 1,000 or so people.

At 10:03 a.m., November 14, 2007, Blogger Tim said...

The Junior Blue Jackets will play on the main ice at Nationwide as the arena's schedule allows. When on the main ice, they'll play in front of 2,000 or so typically.

At 11:17 a.m., November 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to Cedar Rapids 7 times for work and nobody I talk to knows about the Roughriders. They know that there is an 'ice hockey' rink somewhere. Maybe it is just the people I've talked to, but sports talk there is all about the Hawkeyes, and to a lesser extent the Kernels.

At 3:06 p.m., November 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All the midget AAA players and coaches I encounter (sticktime, pickup hockey) in Southern California are focused in like a laser on graduating to the USHL.

The WHL is on their radar, and holds tryout camps here every spring, but for whatever reason, the idea of defering college for 4 years of $200/month CHL juniors in Canada doesn't seem to hold the same appeal. The 'romanticism' of college athletics seems to have bled over from American football and basketball into the USA hockey scene.

James, when you talk to people in the USA Hockey braintrust, you might ask them their opinion of what has had the more significant impact: the rise of the USHL or the NTDP in Ann Arbor?

At 7:54 p.m., November 14, 2007, Blogger Ryan said...

and to add to the NHL connections, Lincoln has added Mark Messier's son, Lyon.

Luc Robitaille is part owner of the Omaha Lancers.

Joe Pavelski's younger brother, Scott, plays for Waterloo.

John-Michael Liles is part owner, I think, of Indiana Ice.

At 10:26 p.m., November 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do the Omaha Lancers not play in Omaha? Why are they listed as an Iowa team and not a Nebraska team?

At 10:37 p.m., November 14, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

The team is based in Council Bluffs, a hop over the border.

At 10:53 p.m., November 15, 2007, Blogger Dirk Hoag said...

I remember when the USHL Indianapolis Ice took the place of the IHL's Indianapolis Ice, and one thing that strikes me about the junior circuit is that I doubt we'll see any decent rivalries develop anytime soon between these teams.

Back in 1996, my first date with my wife in Indianapolis was for a "pack the house" night at the old Market Square Arena between the IHL Indianapolis Ice and the Ft. Wayne Komets, and there was a good crowd of 15,000 or so for what was a heated game with plenty of once & future NHL'ers like Glen Featherstone, (Kip or Kelly, I can't recall) Miller, and Todd White, among others.

As the fortunes of the IHL turned sour the team lost money year after year and eventually switched over to the USHL model. The selling point in Indianapolis was that you'd see young stars on their way up rather than career minor leaguers, but it was still seen as a setback by the few hardcore hockey fans in Indianapolis.

At 7:52 p.m., November 17, 2007, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

I played with a couple of guys who went to the USHL - they weren't good enough to play DI college, retired by 23, and are selling cars these days.

So I never thought much of the USHL, but your post compelled me to run the numbers. From basically zero 15 years ago, there were 73 USHL alums who played in the NHL last year. Almost half of USHL players now end up in the NCAA, up from maybe 20% 12 years ago.

The level of play has (not surprisingly) also gone up in the USHL. Where 1 point translated to 0.45 points in the NCAA 15 years ago, it is now worth 0.63 points.

Which means...the USHL is roughly as tough as the OHL/WHL/QMJHL. I suppose it's no suprise to scouts...


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