By Alex Kyrias
Now in its 41st season as a successful junior hockey league in the United States, the North American Hockey League (NAHL) continues to raise the bar and redefine success.
If a player’s goal is to play NCAA hockey and beyond, the NAHL has proven to be one of the best places to accomplish those goals.
Each season sets a new standard for player development and NCAA commitments.
Committed team ownership takes a financial risk by providing players with top quality coaching, skill development and community-supported teams in stable markets. Combined with one-of-a kind events that provide unparalleled exposure, when it comes to earning an NCAA commitment while playing junior hockey, no one does it better than the NAHL.
“‘Made in the NAHL’ fits us well because when it comes to players entering the league without an NCAA commitment, but earning one while they are playing in the league, there is no one better at it than the NAHL,” said NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld.
This season, the NAHL and its member teams have kept the upward trend of momentum going. With more than 125 NCAA Division 1 commitments already since September, not only is the NAHL on pace to eclipse last year’s singleseason record of 259 (almost 70 percent of which were Division 1 commitments), but the league has also now crossed the threshold of committing over 1,000 players to NCAA hockey in the last five years.
The increasing number of NCAA commitments is also why 25 percent of the 498 freshmen currently playing NCAA Division 1 hockey this season previously played in the NAHL.
“Committing 1,000 players to the NCAA in the last five years and seeing that 25 percent of current NCAA Division 1 freshmen are alumni of the NAHL are both remarkable numbers,” Frankenfeld said. “There is a sense of pride that all these players can be traced back to playing their junior hockey in the NAHL.
“It is a testimony to our mission, the development path, the players, the owners and the coaches, who have all made an investment to create a product that is considered one of the best in the world.”
So how does the NAHL do it year in and year out? It begins with the special DNA that is found in every NAHL owner, each of whom is a philanthropic entrepreneur. NAHL owners take a large financial risk to give back to the sport of ice hockey. They have been successful in other businesses and they are now giving back to the hockey community and, most importantly, the young, developing hockey player.
They take this risk to share in a reward that can be as simple as providing the opportunity for NAHL players to earn NCAA commitments. They do this by hiring the best coaches, and giving the coaches the best resources to find the best players to put on the ice.
“The model created by an NAHL owner is awesome,” said Frankenfeld. “Their continued investment into development and competition creates the NAHL brand of hockey that sustains the increasing interest from the NCAA and NHL.”
Each season is about competition and player development. A rigorous 60-game regular season schedule is complemented with daily on-ice and off-ice training. This includes playing in arenas across the United States that offer a unique and often pressure-packed atmosphere where the players learn to adapt to playing in front of large crowds and in front of dozens of scouts on a nightly basis.
Committed to exposure
Another one of the big reasons behind the number of NCAA commitments is the continued success of the exposure events that are hosted by the league.
Each season begins with the NAHL Showcase, otherwise known as “The Greatest Show on Ice.” Over 300 NHL and NCAA scouts get a first look at all 550-plus NAHL players as all 24 teams come together for four regular season games apiece in September. The result is a one-of-a-kind experience that kicks off each season with dozens of NCAA commitments.
The next big event is the Top Prospects Tournament. The two-day event, which will take place this year from Feb. 27- 28 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., is primarily designed to give currently uncommitted NAHL players an opportunity to play in a highly competitive environment in front of hundreds of NHL and NCAA scouts.
Over half the NCAA commitments made on an annual basis come following the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament. In addition, a fifth NAHL Selects team which features some of the best young and draft-eligible players in the league that have been identified as players with NHL Draft potential.
The final component is the inclusion of the U.S. Hockey National Development Team Program, which takes the competition and exposure to the next level as players from the NAHL compete against the best 17-and 18-year-olds in the United States.
A great example of how the NAHL model is working for players is University of Minnesota forward Darian Romanko.
Now a sophomore playing NCAA Division 1 hockey for the Golden Gophers, Romanko earned his commitment after playing two full years in the league with the Minnesota Wilderness. His commitment to Minnesota came in the week following his participation in the annual NAHL Top Prospects Tournament.
“Playing in the NAHL taught me to be ready to perform every night and play consistently. You have to set yourself apart with your work ethic and never give up,” Romanko said. “That was the mentality I had on a daily basis and one that I focused on while playing at Top Prospects knowing a commitment was still out there.
“The competition you face prepares you for the next level,” Romanko added. “I think the league benefits from the great coaching and you have to absorb and listen to what they say. You have to do what you can to keep getting better every day on and off the ice, and that’s what is going to make you develop into a player who is ready for the next level.”
Frankenfeld said that he takes pride in seeing the number of players that move on to the NCAA and play college hockey.
“Not only are there hundreds of alumni like Darian that are currently playing NCAA hockey, but the success they are having there reinforces the way they are being developed in the NAHL,” he added. “The peak of their development is still ahead of them and the NAHL was the place where it started to become a reality.
“One thing that has become our hallmark is that we are doing everything we can to advance our players,” Frankenfeld said. “This includes working in constant communication with NCAA coaches, USA Hockey, the USHL and NHL Central Scouting, all of whom have a vested interest in our league and our players’ development.”
Committed to the Robertson Cup
The final piece of the event component is the NAHL Robertson Cup National Championship, which will be held from May 11-14 in Duluth, Minn.
The Robertson Cup is awarded to the national playoff champion of the NAHL and will feature the four divisional playoff winners competing in a final four format.
The event serves as another opportunity for players to perform under the most pressure-packed of situations with hundreds of NCAA and NHL scouts in attendance.
“Our event structure is designed for NCAA and NHL scouts to follow our players as they develop. The NAHL Showcase is an early identifier for the scouts to commit to players that are ready,” Frankenfeld said. “The Top Prospects Tournament is for when players have developed and are ready to earn their NCAA commitment. The Robertson Cup National Championship is a fitting way to end our season and provide one final opportunity for players to perform with the ultimate prize on the line.”
The commitment success has also resulted in success at the NHL Draft. Over the course of the past two seasons, the NAHL has seen 10 players selected straight out of the league in the annual draft.
Committed to the future
The success at the NHL Draft, along with the rise in NCAA commitments, is also a result of the league trending towards adding younger players to the mix of older, more developed players.
The steady increase in NCAA commitments, especially Division 1 commitments, is directly related to the league accepting and developing younger talent. NHL and NCAA scouts are not only seeing that the NAHL has younger players to evaluate in addition to older players, but that they can also handle the rigors of NAHL competition against players that may be older than they are.
“We are excited for our continued growth and success as a league, especially during the past five years, which has seen so many NCAA commitments,” said Frankenfeld. “Our committed
and dedicated owners and coaches, combined with our event structure, not only have provided our current players with the best opportunity for success and development, but should also give future players the opportunity to be ‘Made in the NAHL.’”