The Lone Star Brahmas of North Richland Hills, Texas. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs of Alaska. The Minnesota Wilderness of Cloquet, Minnesota.
To the untrained eye, it might be hard to see what these geographically separated teams might have in common. All that eye has to do is look on the Chuck Robertson Cup to see that all three teams are recent North American Hockey League and USA Hockey National Champions.
Technically, the Brahmas (who just won the Cup on May 14) still have to have their names engraved, but the NAHL has carved out a continent’s worth of high-speed, high-powered hockey from Alaska to Massachusetts, from Minnesota to Texas, and so many spots in between.
The league may cover a whole continent, but the NAHL’s achievements are just as big. The 2016-17 NAHL season is close to setting yet another record for commitments. Last year, the league set a record with 259 NCAA commitments. As of Memorial Day, there were 240+ commitments by players active in the NAHL this season, meaning last year’s record will be eclipsed in the coming weeks.
It marks the fifth straight season that the NAHL has recorded a record number of NCAA commitments. There have been more than 1,100 college commitments from the NAHL in the past five seasons. Nearly 85 percent of those were to NCAA Division I schools.
“I think we are getting a player who is hungry to succeed and one who has yet to reach his true potential,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “Our calling card has become getting players committed while they are playing in the NAHL. That is a testament to the way they are developing once they start playing in the NAHL. That development is thanks, in large part, to the coaching they receive and the rigorous schedule they have on and off the ice during an eight-month season where they are playing 60-70 games a year,” Frankenfeld added.
“I love the direction in which the league is going,” added Bill McCoshen, owner and president of the Janesville Jets, and an NAHL board member. “We’re on pace to set a record for the sixth straight year in the number of kids going to NCAA Division I schools. The league is getting better. We just had a great Robertson Cup tournament in Duluth. Now it’s on to Pre-Draft camp season, and every team is already building towards next year.”
It’s not just college scouts and coaches that have taken notice of the NAHL. The league has seven players listed on the NHL Central Scouting Services’ Final Rankings, released in April. NAHL alumni active in the NHL include the Ottawa Senators’ Craig Anderson, the Vancouver Canucks’ Ryan Miller, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ben Bishop and the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Brandon Saad, among others.
The only other non-major junior league with more players listed is the United States Hockey League.
USA Hockey Ladder of Development
While the NAHL has established itself as a road to the NCAA Division 1 ranks along with the USHL, the NAHL is also happy to join the USHL and Tier III junior leagues such as the NAHL’s own developmental league, the NA3HL, as USA Hockey-sanctioned junior leagues in the United States. The NAHL and USHL stand as USA Hockey’s only fully sanctioned tuition-free leagues.
“I think the NAHL is a great developmental league for college hockey. The proof is in the pudding, with the number of players they give college opportunities to,” said Marc Boxer, Director of Junior Hockey for USA Hockey. “We at USA Hockey are happy to partner with the NAHL and the NA3HL and are happy to have them both as partners moving forward.”
The NAHL features ownership across all 23 teams that will skate in the 2017-18 season that are devoted to their players, from great billet situations, to college-and pro-style amenities. Coaching staffs feature full-time coaches, with extensive playing and coaching backgrounds at different levels. Minot Minotauros head coach Marty Murray, for example, played in 270 NHL games.
While every night in the NAHL can offer an exciting, family-friendly night out, the league also prides itself on signature events such as the ‘Greatest Show On Ice,’ the NAHL Showcase, to be held between Sept. 20-23 in Blaine, Minn., at the Schwan SuperRink. This features all NAHL teams in non-divisional play over the course of four days.
The NAHL Top Prospects Tournament features the top non-committed NAHL players in each division, plus a Selects team of committed, NHL Draft-eligible players. Taking place at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., it also features the host U.S. National Team Development Program. Next season’s tournament will be held Feb. 26-27, 2018.
The Robertson Cup Championship, which features the four divisional playoff champions, will again be held in May.
NA3HL to NAHL Pathway
The NA3HL is also making their mark in advancement of players. Heading into its 8th season, the NA3HL serves as the top training ground in the country by providing the best coaching, exposure and developmental vehicles available for student-athletes in Tier III junior hockey. It is the only nationwide Tier III junior hockey league in USA Hockey with 47 teams in 22 states.
This season alone saw more than 30 players advance to the NAHL during the season and for the second straight season, more than 100 NA3HL players have committed to play college hockey.
The NA3HL policies and procedures were built right from the NAHL’s DNA, which includes a full-time staff and all the same events that the NAHL enjoys, like a Showcase, Top Prospects Tournament and Playoff Championship Tournament.
“Each year, more and more top level NA3HL players earn the opportunity to advance on to the NAHL. The fact remains that no other Tier III league in the country sends more players on to the NAHL than the NA3HL,” said Frankenfeld. “A big component of this is the events the NA3HL enjoys each season. In addition, the enhanced level of play, the level of commitment and the competition on the ice makes for a pretty fantastic product. The results and numbers behind the player advancement speak for themselves.”
A perfect example of that pathway of advancement is Shreveport Mudbugs forward Frankie Melton. The St. Louis, Missouri native led the NAHL in goals this season with 35, but it all started in the NA3HL with two seasons with his hometown St. Louis Jr. Blues. In late May, Melton committed to play NCAA Division I hockey at Ferris State University.
Praise from the NCAA
Across the NCAA, the Atlantic Hockey League’s scoring champion, the Hockey East Tournament MVP, a First Team East All-American goalie, and five members of the National Champion University of Denver Pioneers are all proud NAHL alumni.
Evan Janssen (Alaska Avalanche), Colin Staub (Wichita Falls Wildcats) and Emilio Romig (Corpus Christi IceRays) joined goalies Evan Cowley (Wichita Falls) and Greg Ogard (Coulee Region Chill) as members of the NCAA champion Pioneers.
Charles Williams, who played for the former Owatonna Express, was named a First Team East All-American this year for Canisius College. The First Team West All-American Goalie, Michael Bitzer (Bemidji State), is also a NAHL alum. C.J. Smith (Austin Bruins) was the Tournament MVP for the Hockey East, leading UMass-Lowell to the Lamoriello Trophy before signing with the Buffalo Sabres.
Robert Morris University forward Brady Ferguson (Amarillo Bulls) led all Atlantic Hockey skaters with 58 points in 38 games this past season.
So, it’s no surprise that NCAA Division I coaches and scouts make it a point to get to NAHL games. More than 300 NCAA and NHL scouts took in the 2016 NAHL Showcase, and more than 250 NCAA and NHL scouts also saw the Top Prospects Tournament.
“The league’s main events such as the NAHL Showcase, the Top Prospects, and the Robertson Cup are can’t-miss recruiting events, not only for us, but for all programs in college hockey,” said Brian Riley, head coach of the U.S. Military Academy’s NCAA Division 1 team. Army has eight players from the 2016-17 NAHL season joining the Black Knights next year.
“The league is committed to doing whatever it can to promote its players and, as a result, all of their events are run in a first-class manner,” Riley added. “I can’t say enough about the league and how it has helped college hockey get better over the years.”
Damon Whitten is head coach for Lake Superior State University, which likewise has eight NAHL recruits from 2016-17 teams.
“The league’s done a tremendous job in building and promoting its major events,” said Whitten. “As a program and as a head coach, it’s an outstanding opportunity for us to attend the events of the NAHL to evaluate a wide array of talent.”
McCoshen said that the NAHL is constantly surveying its visiting coaches and scouts to make sure they are getting everything they need to facilitate the assessment of NAHL players.
“The one thing we do really well is we put on really good events,” McCoshen added. “We make it easy for scouts to do ‘one-stop shopping.’ We find out what the scouts liked and didn’t like. We want to make sure they’re comfortable and that they keep coming. It’s part of our Ladder of Development. They’re moving kids to the USHL and straight into NCAA Division 1 and 3 schools,” added USA Hockey’s Boxer. “It’s a great feeder system and development program within the USA Hockey system.”
The trend seems to be getting verbal commitments from younger and younger players. However, University of Massachusetts head coach Greg Carvel says that NCAA programs should consider the older teenaged and 20-year players the NAHL grants an arena.
“At the NCAA Division 1 level, you have many schools that focus their recruiting efforts on very young future student-athletes. Other programs have found great success on waiting for players to develop further, which removes some of the risk out of committing players who are still a number of years away from competing at the college level,” added Carvel.
“At UMass, we try to take a balanced approach in recruiting. We will have a considerable number of kids on our roster next year that played in the NAHL and were committed directly out of this league,” said Carvel, whose team will take six NAHL players next year. “The NAHL is full of kids like this that have become valuable players for really good college hockey programs. Kids need to go where they can play important minutes and continue to develop on the ice and off. The NAHL provides tremendous opportunities for young hockey players in this regard.”
Tradition meets future
In 2015, the North American Hockey League reached east and welcomed three new teams – the Aston Rebels, New Jersey Titans, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.
They joined the Johnstown Tomahawks in forming the East Division. The NAHL was fully transcontinental. The Northeast Generals joined in 2016, making it a five-team division.
The Rebels have made the Robertson Cup championship round the last two years in a row. This year, they reached the finals in just their second year.
“The NAHL has enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity and stability, thanks in large part to our committed owners. These owners each take a financial risk to provide an opportunity and a place to play for all of our players,” said Frankenfeld.
While on the grueling chase for the Robertson Cup every year, players can still know they’re in the place where NCAA Division 1 commitments are essentially an everyday occurrence.
“I want to see the league continue to grow and prosper. I want to see all 23 teams next year be competitive and have a chance to be in the mix for the Robertson Cup,” said McCoshen. “I was glad to see the Lone Star Brahmas win [in their fourth year]. I would have liked a Jets win, but the Wilderness also won it a couple years ago in their second year. It shows that it can be done in a short amount of time.”
When a player signs on with a NAHL team, he is joining a vast family – owners, coaches, staff, fans. He will also benefit from a network of coaches of all stripes that want to see the best players with the best character find their way to the best college hockey situation for each individual.
“Our continued success and record number of NCAA commitments is the direct result of our ownership groups, the talent level of players, our experienced coaches, the development and continued relationships with the NCAA and NHL, and the performance and advancement of players once they leave the NAHL [alumni],” Frankenfeld added. “We want to keep that momentum and stability going in the right direction. We are careful about expansion, but it is something we continue to look at on an annual basis to make sure we are doing what is best for the players and the league.”
All around the NAHL are many satisfied customers with the direction of the league thus far.
“I’m always so impressed by the talent level that we run across while recruiting in the NAHL but even more importantly by the character level in the men that we recruit out of the NAHL every year,” said Army’s Coach Riley. “Credit certainly has to go to the coaches in the NAHL who provide these young men with outstanding coaching and mentorship on a daily basis.”