It’s September and that means a lot of things. For some, it’s apple-picking time, for others it’s back to school.
For the North American Hockey League (NAHL), it’s the month when the players of the nation’s longest-lasting junior hockey league really get on the map with NCAA Division 1 colleges.
After all, it is the month of the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., when every one of the NAHL’s 23 teams will hit the ice over the better part of a week in front of NCAA and NHL scouts.
This is, for many players, their introduction to exposure at the highest levels of college and pro hockey – and it works. The NAHL saw 305 college commitments (to NCAA Division 1 and 3 levels) from September 2016 through August 2017 for its 2016-17 players, an all-time high for the only Tier-2 junior hockey league fully sanctioned by USA Hockey.
That brings the league’s record to 1,200 players committed in the last five years.
From the Showcase in Blaine, the NAHL season continues with hard-hitting, offense-packed hockey played in as far-flung locations as Fairbanks, Alaska, Corpus Christi, Texas, and east to Attleboro, Mass., in the heart of New England. Each May, the Robertson Cup is lifted by one team that goes through the grind of such a season, impressing the college and pro scouts as they go with their tenacity.
“The number of commitments is impressive and validates the NAHL as a legitimate proving ground for prospects wishing to showcase their talents,” said Frank Serratore, the 21-year head coach of the Air Force Academy’s NCAA Division 1 team. “Prospects and their parents need look no further than the 300 commitments to recognize the NAHL as the league of opportunity and a springboard to college hockey.”
No other league in the United States had as many NCAA college commitments made by players while they were playing in that league in 2016-17 than the NAHL.
“How do we get to over 300 commitments? I think it goes back to our owners investing in their coaches and their communities,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “Those coaches and communities are, in turn, attracting more top-end players and they’re doing it more efficiently, really getting on the ground and in the trenches to identify talent and develop that talent.”
The 305 college commitments smashed the previous league record of 259 made by 2015-16 players.
At this pace, the NAHL should pass 1,500 commitments over six seasons by the time the dust settles after the 2017-18 season.
“We were fortunate last year to have a record number of players  commit to schools,” said Scott Langer, head coach of the Aberdeen Wings. “The strength of the league as a whole definitely plays a part in that. The NAHL has established itself as a legitimate destination where players can get the growth they need to move to the next level, and the record college numbers across the league are proof of that.”
“It is an incredible number  and an achievement that only one other junior hockey league in North America, the USHL, can match,” said Rick Bouchard, the President of the Johnstown Tomahawks. “It is a testament to everyone who works hard to make it happen, including the owners, the coaches, the NAHL staff, but most importantly, the hard work of the players.”
Serratore said that he and his staff put a lot of focus on the NAHL’s players, as they are playing at the top level of USA Hockey leagues available for uncommitted players. NAHL players have helped the Falcons win the Atlantic Hockey Association six times and make the same number of NCAA tournament appearances. Last March, Air Force knocked off Western Michigan to advance to the national tournament quarterfinals for the second time in eight years.
“We dabble in other leagues, but the NAHL is our bread and butter,” said Serratore. “We as a staff scout the league the entire year, watching a large number of games both in person and online. We will begin the 2017-18 season with 25 NAHL alumni on our Air Force roster. I doubt any other Division 1 program in the country can come close to matching that number.”
Along with getting talented hockey players on the ice, Air Force’s NAHL players have helped the hockey team stand as either No. 1 or No. 2 academically on campus the last 20 years. “Winning championships and achieving in the classroom endorses both the caliber of athlete and the quality of people the NAHL is producing,” Serratore added.
Truly North American
The NAHL wants to make sure they are providing their product to as many American hockey players as possible, offering their message of earning a college commitment while you play for the NAHL everywhere from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Kansas to Alaska.
Although the epicenters of junior hockey are throughout the Midwest and Northeast, the NAHL is able to make sure all of its players are being seen – by NCAA scouts and NHL scouts alike. No less than 17 players have been drafted into the NHL the last five years.
“The NAHL has done very well,” said Greg Rajanen, who works for the NHL Central Scouting Service. “With the number of teams they have in North America, it’s obviously well spread out, but they do a really good job of bringing their players to not only the NHL scouts, but to college scouts, as well.”
Case in point, Fairbanks standouts Todd Burgess and Benton Maass have been two of the league’s eight drafted players the last two years.
There have been 22 Fairbanks players who have committed to the NCAA Division 1 ranks the last two years as well. Nine more Kenai River Brown Bears have made commitments.
“The travel between Alaska and everywhere else is obviously challenging, but a huge sign of our success is how our players have overcome that,” said Frankenfeld. “Kenai River has done a
good job of reinvesting in their product, and Fairbanks is one of the best junior products on and off the ice in the United States.
“The Northeast Generals, at the other end of our footprint, have done a great job of weathering a storm and they are more prepared this year than last year,” Frankenfeld added.
NAHL teams play games mostly within their division, aside from the Showcase and a few other games. There are, however, some big trips – teams often use their big trips to Alaska or New England as team-building opportunities.
“The season is long, and the adversity each individual player goes through is going to make them a stronger player in college,” said Tim Madsen, head coach of the Minnesota Wilderness, and a former assistant and associate head coach at Niagara University. “To be able to play at your best after a six-hour bus ride, or to play 11 games in 23 days in one month. Those are things that are going to really challenge the player, and ultimately, make them a better player both mentally and physically.”
The East Division has the league’s newest teams – the Generals, Wilkes- Barre/Scranton Knights, New Jersey Titans, and the Philadelphia Rebels. The Tomahawks joined this group and Bouchard said that the East Division games always have plenty of scouts.
“If you look at the NCAA commitment numbers for the East Division teams, they are towards the top of the NAHL,” said Bouchard. “The geography is perfect for scouts throughout the season. Johnstown, selected Kraft Hockeyville USA in 2015, receives incredible fan support, which is something that is an NAHL trademark and is unique to junior teams in the East.”
“Being able to have a presence in multiple areas helps with accessibility for the scouts and also allows some players to stay closer to home,” the Wings’ Langer added. “A lot of teams have to pull together to make it work, but it’s paid off in terms of making us a stronger league and it’s the players who benefit from that.”
Showcasing the talent
In the middle of winter, the spotlight suddenly shines on the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., as the best uncommitted players are selected to play each other in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament.
To give scouts the best gauge of the talent still available, they add in the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 and Under-18 teams. And on top of that, there is a NAHL Selects team, made up of NHL Draft-eligible players.
“They allow us to choose one team, the NAHL Selects,” said the NHL’s Rajanen. “The NAHL’s philosophy is they want all the guys who are still looking to get college scholarships together. We usually have two or three NHL Central Scouting guys there, especially our goalie guy, Al Jensen [a former NHL goalie], because there always seems to be a wealth of strong goalies coming out of that league.”
“The Blaine Showcase is the early opportunity to get players on the radar,” said Frankenfeld. “Then, there’s [an event] gap until the Top Prospects Tournament, which narrows the focus for the scouts.”
The Showcase in Minnesota each September also serves as a networking mecca. It provides a platform for NAHL coaches and staff members to reconnect with, or meet new, NCAA coaches and NHL scouts.
“Hockey is a small circle. It’s kind of a fraternity,” Frankenfeld added. “Everyone from every level is there, so great relationships come out of that. A guy like Frank Serratore, they just started looking at guys in the NAHL at one point, and they started winning with them. More and more college guys whom I have talked to, they talk about spending more time recruiting in the NAHL, and they are finding more high-end NAHL guys ready to compete and make an impact.”
“The NAHL Showcase is crucial to get the scouts started,” Rajanen added. “We have a list of futures to start the year with, and there are a few guys we identified the previous year as potential prospects playing in the showcase.”
Dan Wildfong, head coach of the 2017 Robertson Cup champion Lone Star Brahmas, preaches to his players to be essentially in midseason shape when they hit Blaine.
“It’s still summer hockey at the beginning of the year a little bit, and we want to limit that, so we have our guys come in early,” said Wildfong. “I want them playing the right way when they get to Blaine. The players have to eat right and come into camp in shape. Some of these guys are built like Greek gods when they come in.”
Even the Robertson Cup championship tournament in May attracts scouting attention.
“We had two more commitments after we won it all. That shows you that winning it all means a lot for college coaches, as well,” said Wildfong. “One guy who was committed right after the Cup might not have gotten committed if not for the winning culture here. I counted 12-15 NCAA guys still watching our players in Duluth in May.”
The NAHL is not just for players to move on to the NCAA or even the NHL. Some of the younger players advance to the United States Hockey League.
“We’re very comfortable in our skin with our relationship with the USHL,” said Frankenfeld. “With them being Tier- 1 and us being Tier-2. The colleges know how to track players, whether they earn their opportunity in the NAHL and then play in the USHL. There are more players that come into the NAHL uncommitted, and that’s what creates our brand. Our goal is to send a player on to college.
“If they go to the USHL for a year before college, that’s great. We have been really good partners with USA Hockey and the Ladder of Development that includes the USHL and the NTDP. We have our own Tier-3 junior league and Midget leagues, but we ultimately focus on what works best for our players to advance to college.”
“The product is as competitive as ever,” said the Tomahawks’ Bouchard. “That shows in the annual events we put on as a league and the divisional rivalries that continue to grow. We are at the top of the chain in terms of talent that is being produced for the NCAA.”
Some of that talent also includes coaches – NAHL coaches have been able to make the jump to the NCAA level.
Corey Millen helped the Minnesota Wilderness to the Robertson Cup title in 2015. He was an assistant coach last year for the University of Minnesota. This year, he will begin his tenure as Director of Hockey for Air Force.
“The NAHL is the ‘League of Opportunity’ for not only players but coaches as well,” said Serratore. “There are former NAHL coaches at every level of hockey from Jeff Jackson at Notre Dame to Jon Cooper in the NHL [Tampa Bay]. After a storied playing career as a college All-American, two-time U.S. Olympian, and long-time NHLer, Corey reinvented himself in the NAHL as a highly-respected coach.
“We are very excited to have Corey joining our staff at Air Force,” Serratore added. “Corey is an experienced hockey man and a great guy. We are looking forward to learning from him as much as he is looking forward to learning from us.”
Bill Muckalt was a NAHL head coach with the former New Mexico Mustangs, before moving on to the NCAA as an assistant coach and to the USHL as a head coach and general manager for the Tri-City Storm.
Muckalt is joining Mel Pearson’s staff as an associate coach at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.
“Cooper is one of our favorite stories – he started in the former Central States Hockey League [now the NA3HL], then it was on to the NAHL, to the USHL, and now he’s in Tampa,” said Frankenfeld. “We typically have coaching turnover, which will happen in a league with 24 teams, but that turnover is positive – we’re not only having success developing players, but also earning opportunities for our coaches to advance.”
Wildfong won a championship in this league, and he knows that all of his peers are incredibly adept at putting together a strong team – and they’ll be gunning for the top dogs.
“I really think that, every year since I’ve been here, the product has gotten better and better,” Wildfong said. “In the past, you could have one line and be successful, but now you have to have four
lines, and everyone has to contribute.
“It is a product of the good recruiting that goes on,” he added. “I really like how it’s all managed – our ownership groups and the league office personnel do a great job. Guys are working very hard in this league – coaches, scouts and the league staff.”
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