DALLAS, TX -- When it comes to players committing to play NCAA hockey while playing junior hockey, no one in North America and the United States does it better than the NAHL.
Thanks to another record-breaking year in 2018-19, the NAHL continues to define itself as the League of Opportunity. The impact the league, its 26 member teams, and 600+ players are currently making is having an impact Nationwide from Alaska to Maine.
For the third straight season, the NAHL has gone over 300 NCAA commitments in a single-season. Last year, the NAHL placed 331 players into NCAA colleges, a new record for the league. More than 70 percent of those 331 players advanced to the NCAA Division 1 level.
In 2019, the league is on pace to break that record, as it stood at 316 commitments at the beginning of June, meaning that the league is just 17 NCAA commitments away from setting another record-breaking mark with the summer still to go.
“It is clear that our owners and coaches have made NCAA commitments their top priority and that is a core belief and goal among all 26 teams,” said NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld. “I feel good for our owners that they are getting that type of return, but it is all because we have made an investment in servicing the players. They see the numbers year in and year out and they know where the best places to play are. The proof is in the pudding and the results are there. It is exciting because we keep setting a new standard of excellence each season.”
It once again re-emphasizes that no other junior league in the world saw as many NCAA commitments for their players, while they were actually playing in the league.
“You look at the last six to seven years, and every year we hit this new number, and you start to wonder how we’re going to hit that number again,” continued Frankenfeld. “I think it’s interesting when you peel that 315 back and you look at the 70 percent being Division I commitments. That means there are about 10 players on each team moving on to Division I annually. I think it is encouraging for players out there to know that half their team will earn an NCAA commitment, with the majority going Division I, in each and every season. The numbers are on their side.”
There are currently over 1,200 NAHL alumni currently playing in the NCAA, with 32% of NCAA Division I freshmen having played in the NAHL. In addition, some of the 60+ alumni that played in the National Hockey League this past season reads like a whose who of the sport.
Not only are the number of alumni that are playing in the NCAA and NHL growing with each commitment, each passing season, and every NHL Draft, but there are a continued number of players who are making an impact and defining excellence at both level.
As a prime example, seven former NAHL players were named as NCAA Division I All-Americans during the 2018-19 season. In addition, three of the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, which is awarded to the top goaltender in NCAA Division I hockey, were alumni of the NAHL.
NCAA Division I All-Americans: Blake Lizotte, St. Cloud State (NAHL, 2014-15), Troy Loggins, Northern Michigan (NAHL, 2013-14), Patrick Newell, St. Cloud State (NAHL, 2012-13), Hunter Shepard, Minnesota-Duluth (NAHL, 2014-16), Andrew Shortridge, Quinnipiac (NAHL, 2014-15), Nico Sturm, Clarkson (NAHL, 2014-15), Josh Wilkins, Providence (NAHL, 2014-15)
The back-to-back NCAA Division I National Champions, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, had 11 NAHL alumni on their Championship roster this past season.
“Some of the most impactful players on our NCAA Championship teams came from the North American Hockey League,” said Scott Sandelin, head coach of Minnesota-Duluth. “They all put in the hard work, time, and dedication it takes to become a NCAA Division I hockey player and help us to win a couple of National Championships. The NAHL is a league full of those players who have that little something extra that we coaches are looking for. I have a great deal of respect for everything the NAHL stands for. Players are well coached and the completion is at a very high level.”
The Air Force Falcons have the most NAHL alumni (24) on any NCAA Division I team. Head Coach Frank Serratore, who was the keynote speaker at the 2019 NAHL Robertson Cup Dinner of Champions, believes the NAHL is what makes junior hockey great.
“I am a product of junior hockey and I like the substance that the players have. We like the way the NAHL operates and like the product. This league separates the contenders from the pretenders and the men from the boys. It shows you who truly loves the game and is in it for the long haul,” said Serratore. “NAHL players learn to deal with adversity. There is not a player in the league that hasn’t overcome some type of adversity. Those are the type of players we look for. They have no quit in them.”
The NHL continues to have a strong representation of NAHL alumni. Patrick Kane, Ben Bishop, Brandon Saad, Connor Hellebuyck, and Pat Maroon all played a significant number of games and seasons in the NAHL.
The months of March and April saw nine former NAHL players sign NHL contracts. The NAHL also set another milestone as several players were recognized on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters and goalies for the 2019 NHL Draft, which takes place on June 21-22 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The list includes nine players with NAHL ties, including seven players that played in the NAHL in 2018-19, and two more players that previously played in the NAHL last season.
A total of 30 players with NAHL ties have been selected in the past five years of the NHL Draft, which included nine players that were drafted in 2018.
In 2019-20, the NAHL will continue to build upon their 44-year foundation for continued success, expanding the footprint of the league to 26 teams representing 16 states, with the addition of the Maine Nordiques (Lewiston, Maine) and New Mexico Ice Wolves (Albuquerque, New Mexico), allowing the league to continue to grow and truly become America's only 'national league' when it comes to junior hockey.
“We have had a focus in the last 10-12 years to evolve our ownership, the coaches, and our markets in order to provide players the best junior development experience possible. The NAHL evolution during this time has allowed us to attract some of the best coaches and players in the world,” said Frankenfeld. “Back in 2007, we had 18 teams and just over 100 commitments, and today with the addition of Maine and New Mexico, we have 26 teams and over 330 NCAA commitments. The NAHL is where it is today because of our committed ownership, who all take a financial risk by providing players top-quality coaching, skill development and community-supported teams in stable markets, and one-of-a-kind events that provide unparalleled exposure.”
The Maine Nordiques will be one of two new teams to take the ice in the 2019-20 season. The Nordiques will play out of the Androscoggin Bank Colisée located in Lewiston, Maine and are owned by Darryl Antonacci, MD will be coached by Nolan Howe (grandson of Gordie Howe).
"We are thrilled that the growth of the North American Hockey League is continuing in the East,” said Frankenfeld. “Our East Division has thrived and grown because there are a lot of players in the region that want to play the quality hockey the NAHL represents in front of all the NCAA programs in the East. Since the inception of the East Division four years ago, we have seen a rapid increase of players from the northeast playing in the NAHL and achieving an NCAA Division I opportunity.”
The New Mexico Ice Wolves will also be new to the NAHL in 2019-20 and are owned by media mogul Stan E. Hubbard. The team will play out of the Outpost Ice Arenas in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and have named former NAHL player Phil Fox as the team’s first head coach.
“As the NAHL continues to evolve, the growth of hockey in the South has played a large role in our league’s success and the addition of the Ice Wolves continues to solidify the footprint and add another strong community-based team. With the knowledge and backing of Mr. Hubbard, we are confident that the hockey fans in the City of Albuquerque and state New Mexico will be supportive for long-term success of the team,” said Frankenfeld.
The recipe of success for the NAHL is simple and it starts with having the right ownership in the right markets. Thanks to 24 markets and communities than span from coast-to-coast and wall-to-wall, the stability and scope of the league has never been better. Owners are hiring the right coaches and allowing them go to work in building high character and talented players.
Building on all that is the fact that the NAHL has taken great steps to enhance its social media and branding, staying on the cutting edge of technology for the 100% goal of more exposure for the players. It all makes the NAHL the premiere destination for players that want to earn an NCAA commitment.
“I think another thing that stands out is that our commitment numbers continue to rise because the level of play and talent getting better each season,” said Frankenfeld. “There is a better and more balanced level of competition because the players are being educated and trained at a higher level. There also been a collective effort to really emphasize and place a priority on player development and advancement.”
“I believe that junior hockey is the purest form of the sport, there are no salaries or contracts hanging over the players head, just strong-willed young men battling for space, to be the hero of that particular moment, all to earn their spot on the team, the ice and their future in the sport they love. Don't be confused, these guys are big, strong, fast, skilled, in the best shape of their lives, so when they are all battling for the same space over and over, at some point, something very exciting is going to simultaneously combust,” said Frankenfeld. “There is no better place to get up close and personal with the action than at an NAHL game. It's a great way to celebrate the community, the team, and most importantly, the player. There is no better place to play junior hockey than the NAHL, most player’s start in the NAHL without a NCAA D1 commitment, but they earn it while playing in the NAHL. That’s what we are here for and what we are all about.”
Earlier in 2019, USA Hockey and the North American Hockey League announced an enhanced long-term partnership agreement that will further improve the junior hockey development program in the United States.
“The North American Hockey League has been, and continues to be, an important part of the ladder of development in our country,” said Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey. “We’re excited about the future and look forward to continued collaboration with the league in all areas of the game.”
As part of the enhanced partnership, USA Hockey will provide additional resources to the NAHL to continue to improve all facets of the league, including player development, coaching, officiating and overall visibility.
The NAHL is the only Tier II junior league within the USA Hockey landscape. Back in November, the NAHL along with the Tier I USHL, reached a new and cooperative framework on player movement between the two leagues, The agreement between the two leagues promotes the Ladder of Development in junior hockey, and provides for greater developmental and advancement opportunities for players. Under the new agreement, USHL teams may automatically recall designated affiliate players, who are playing in the NAHL, without a trade form under certain conditions. The agreement also allows USHL teams to loan players to the NAHL on a temporary basis under certain conditions.
“We’ve been extremely proud of our role within USA Hockey. This announcement continues to move our sport forward in a very positive way,” said Mark Frankenfeld, commissioner and president of the NAHL. “The NAHL is where it is today because of our committed ownership and their focus on providing players top-quality coaching, skill development and community-supported teams in stable markets, and one-of-a-kind events that provide unparalleled exposure.”
That unique USA Hockey Ladder of Development path the NAHL has established also extends to the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) and North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL).
“Each year, NA3HL players earn more and more opportunity to advance on to the NAHL and no other Tier III league in the country sends more players on to the NAHL than the NA3HL. Thanks to some additional and recent development and exposure initiatives, advancement numbers have increased and we have provided an additional development path and enhanced experience for those players in the NA3HL,” said Frankenfeld. “The NA3HL enjoys all the same events that the NAHL does and has great owners and coaches. We all share in the common mission of creating an enhanced level of play and competition that is focused on a player’s development and advancement.”
The NA3HL saw 52 of its players either tendered or drafted to play in the NAHL for the 2019-20 season, while over 50+ plus NA3HL alumni played in the NAHL during the 2018-19 season. The NAPHL saw a record number of 49 players sign an NAHL tender for the 2019-20 season, and over a dozen more alumni were selected in the 2019 NAHL Draft. 80+ NAPHL alumni played in the NAHL this past season.
“Our goal in the NAHL, the NA3HL and the NAPHL is that players advance to college. Everyone’s path, timing, and development is different,” said Frankenfeld. “If you’re in the NAPHL [Midget 18U, 16U and 15U], you might play the next year in the NA3HL or the NAHL or even the United States Hockey League. Your college commitment might come through those steps, or any combination of them.”