DALLAS, TX -- The North American Hockey League (NAHL) went and did it again and keeps raising the bar and setting the standard for junior hockey in North America.
For the fifth straight season, the league has set a new NCAA commitment record, this time with 331 total NCAA commitments during the 2017-18 season. That also includes a new record total of 229 NCAA Division I commitments this past season. On top of all that, NAHL teams did it with one less team than the season prior.
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.
NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld could feel momentum building within the North American Hockey League several years back. The snowball has only grown, and now the league finds itself in a better place than it’s ever been in 44 seasons of operation.
“It really starts with having the right ownership in the right markets, and we’re on such solid footing right now with the stability we have in our owners,” said Frankenfeld, who enters his 12thfull season as the head of the League of Opportunity. “They’re hiring the right coaches and letting them go to work in terms of bringing in high-character, talented kids. It’s gotten so competitive in our league that you really have to work extremely hard and develop the kids to have a chance be successful. Then you throw in the work we’ve done in social media and branding, and that snowball keeps building. Kids want to be a part of our league, because they’ve seen the results.”
“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.”
The commitment record is part of an ongoing and rising development path that has seen 1,345 NAHL players make NCAA commitments during the last five years. In addition, 25% of freshmen that played NCAA Division I hockey this past season were alumni of the NAHL.
“The NAHL is the league of development and you are seeing more and more examples as to why, be it our impressive commitment numbers or players taken in the NHL Draft. It is a great place to start and more and more players are getting noticed,” said Janesville Jets Owner and Governor Bill McCoshen, who is also the Chairman of the Board of the NAHL. “The level of our coaching is outstanding and the development of players is happening quickly because we have such a great network of coaches who are 100% focused on making the players better and then advancing them onto the higher levels. The NCAA and NHL scouts recognize that and understand that a player’s development in the NAHL is one that happens pretty fast.”
One of the more impressive things about this year’s commitment numbers is over half of the NCAA commitments made this season came following the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament in late February. Heading into the event, the league had roughly 150 NCAA commitments. Following the event, the league saw a spike in commitments later during the regular season and playoffs, which also included an impressive showing of 74 commitments following the conclusion of the Robertson Cup Championship in mid-May.
It is a reflection in the popularity of the league-wide events, which include the NAHL Showcase, the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament and the NAHL Robertson Cup Championship, which all annually see hundreds of NCAA and NHL scouts at each event during the season.
“The fact that over half our NCAA commitments came after our Top Prospects event is a testament to the model. Scouts now have an established roadmap to track a player’s development, which includes assessments throughout the season and then making a determination based on his progression,” said Frankenfeld. “The fact we added 73 of those NCAA commitments after the Robertson Cup is incredible. During the Robertson Cup Playoffs, teams are playing at a very high level and the scouts not only get another opportunity for evaluation, but also see a player compete when pressure is at its peak. The scouts are getting a look at a player who has evolved, matured, and excelled throughout the season.”
All of the NAHL coaches, who had their head coaches’ meetings this summer in Dallas, Texas, during the NHL Draft, were also complimentary of the way their players develop and their commitment to hard work. It was a major talking point at the meetings and part of a continued commitment among all of them that is focused on a common mission revolving around their player’s development and advancement. Part of that commitment to their players was that they all attended the NHL Coaches' Association Global Coaches’ Clinic. The event provided education to all of the NAHL coaches through a variety of presentations and small-group sessions conducted by NHL coaches.
“I think we as NAHL coaches are working as hard as anyone out there,” said Fairbanks Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart, who was named the NAHL Coach of the Year in 2017-18 and whose team had 13 NCAA Division I commitments this season. “We are in it for the players and it is competitive among us. We are all in it for the right reasons, which gives us all a sense of professionalism. We are all in the rink each day trying to outwork our peers because we all know we are behind the scenes doing what it takes to better our players and better ourselves.”
“Everyone is doing their part and working hard,” said Aberdeen Wings head coach Scott Langer, who is the current active NAHL wins leader. “It starts at the top with the league staff and ownership. There are also some really high-end coaches in this league who spend countless hours not only developing their players, but also establishing and growing those relationships with NCAA and NHL coaches and scouts. Our commitment to our players extends well beyond the rink.”
“It starts with all the people involved. There is a passion among the owners and coaches about what they do. They care about the kids and the programs. We see that first hand and it shows with the product on the ice. The coaches are the ones that strive for daily success and keep pushing the players to be the best they can be and players know if they buy into that, an NCAA commitment is very possible,” said Janesville Jets head coach Gary Shuchuk, who is also a former NCAA Division I assistant coach, formerly with the University of Wisconsin.
“The amount of commitments is pretty special. It makes your feel proud to have witnessed the growth that has taken place the last 10 years. The opportunity the players are getting now is second-to-none and the feeling of the NCAA coaches echoes that sentiment,” said Bismarck Bobcats head coach Layne Sedevie.
“The number of commitments speaks for itself. Players are getting seen and the exposure is incredible. It is the League of Opportunity,” said former Shreveport Mudbugs head coach Karlis Zirnis, whose team captured the 2018 NAHL Robertson Cup National Championship and had 13 active players committed during the season. “The level of the coaching really is leading to the player’s development and advancement. There wasn’t a time this season that some coach at a higher level wasn’t inquiring about one of our players. We are doing everything we can to make them better and give them an experience they will remember.”
“The investment that our owners and the league has made in us is incredible. We got the spend time during our meetings in Dallas with established NHL coaches and we are just talking hockey and the common theme and message is trying to make us better coaches for the betterment of our players,” said Austin Bruins head coach Steve Howard. “There are a lot of good hockey players out there and every one of them develops at a difference pace. There is a lot of things that people don’t see behind the scenes that goes into their development and trying to move them onto the next levels. All of our coaches and staffs in the NAHL work very hard to accomplish that goal.”
“When you look at the numbers in North America, the most impressive thing is that the players are committing while developing in the NAHL. We are all about the development of the players,” said Amarillo Bulls head coach Rocky Russo. “The number of commitments each season speak for themselves. Another impressive thing is that the commitments come during the entire season, which is a direct reflection of the league-wide events that take place.”
“The amount of exposure our players get is invaluable and to me, that’s how we convince them that the NAHL is the place to be. They get so much exposure, everywhere, and it lasts all season,” said Odessa Jackalopes head coach Greg Gatto.
Now in his 12th season at the helm, NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld has grown the NAHL to 24 cities in 14 states with 300+ NCAA commitments every year.
The Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, will host the 16th annual NAHL Showcase in late September, which annually sees 350 NHL and NCAA scouts during the event in front of packed stands.
NAHL MVP and Janesville Jets forward Jakov Novak was one of nine players with NAHL experience selected in the 2018 NHL Draft this past summer. He was selected by the Ottawa Senators and will play NCAA Division I hockey at Bentley.
NAHL Goaltender and Rookie of the Year Mitchell Gibson was one of nine players with NAHL experience selected in the 2018 NHL Draft this past summer. He was selected by the Washington Capitals and will play NCAA Division I hockey at Harvard.