There’s a lot of misconceptions, rumors and hearsay out there when people talk about hockey in Michigan. A ton of opinions are formulated without any real facts ever being considered in the equation. So I did some research and took a deep dive into the various paths, junior leagues and colleges to get to the bottom of exactly what goes on as far as hockey in the Great Lakes State is concerned. I don’t think information like this is readily available anywhere for us to consume, so there should be quite a bit of value in this content as families make decisions involving the game.
I’m going to drop a lot of numbers and references throughout this article, and I know sometimes those things can be called into question. Because of that, I’ve made all my research viewable to readers HERE. That information was manually data-mined from Elite Prospects and if any of that is inaccurate or needs correcting, I am more than happy to make adjustments.
Now, I really don’t want any of this to be misconstrued. Let me preface this entire article by saying this isn’t “The War on AAA” or “All Hail High School Hockey” or anything of that sort. The purpose is information, numbers and research into the world of amateur hockey that hopefully informs parents, players and coaches alike. All of this is certainly up for discussion and I welcome any constructive conversations if you wish to connect on Twitter. I’ll raise a couple questions and comments of my own throughout, as I’m sure you will too, so let’s talk about it.
What this is, is a deeper look into the progress of a players’ amateur career over the course of the last 12 months. I wanted to revisit, evaluate and assess programs’ levels of success in terms of advancement. In Michigan, there’s primarily two paths for 18U and 16U age groups: AAA and High School. There are a few stragglers that still opt for Tier 2 options rather than high school, and in doing research for this article I could not find a single instance of a Tier 2 player going directly to a level of junior hockey higher than the USPHL. If you are 14- to 18-years-old and seriously pursuing juniors or college hockey, AAA and MI-HS are the only two viable options in this state. Period.
I’ll come back to the Tier 2 discussion, but let’s first examine the high school landscape, as well as AAA from a 16U and an 18U perspective.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There’s never been a better time to play Michigan High School Hockey than right now. More and more athletes are signing NAHL tender agreements, moving on to high-level juniors, and going on to make and fulfill Division-I NCAA commitments. Each year, the numbers go up and each year, more scouts take notice.
As it stands today, 83 MI-HS alumni played Tier-I or Tier-II Juniors in the U.S., or Junior-A in Canada during the 2019-20 season. From that group, 26 were on MI-HS rosters 12 months ago. Here’s a quick breakdown…
USHL: Five players (Two from last season)
NAHL: 39 players (Six from last season)
NCDC: Five players (One from last season)
BCHL: Two players (Both from last season)
AJHL: Four players (Three from last season)
OJHL: Three players (None from last season)
CCHL: Three players (All from last season)
MJHL: Four players (One from last season)
NOJHL: 18 players (Eight from last season)
...I look at those numbers in two phases for a couple reasons. For starters, to show that there is a significant amount of athletes who have played MI-HS and gone on to reach a high level of junior hockey. Not only can it be done, but dozens upon dozens of Michigan kids are doing it at an impressive clip. Then, the 26 players who have made this jump just in the last year illustrates how MI-HS can truly be used as an important stepping stone in the process. If you want to play junior hockey at a high level, it is more prevalent and more viable to utilize this platform as a launching point right now than it has ever been.
Let’s look at the eight teams’ rosters from the 2018-19 season. A total of 165 athletes from the ‘02 and ‘03-birth years played for Belle Tire, Compuware, Fox Motors, Honeybaked, Little Caesars, Meijer, Oakland Jr. Grizzlies and Victory Honda during the ‘18-19 campaign. I wanted to focus on the 134 Michigan-based players to see how their careers have progressed over the past 12 months, and where they stand as of present day. Here’s what I found...
Five play for the U.S. National Development Program
Six moved on to the OHL
Nine moved on to the USHL
Nine moved on to the NAHL
One moved on to the BCHL
Two moved on to the NCDC
...So about 1-in-4 players advanced from 16U MI-AAA directly to CHL, Junior-A, Tier-I or Tier-II Junior the following season. Now, of those 32 players, the breakdown by MI-AAA teams is as follows…
Little Caesars: Nine
Oakland Jr. Grizzlies: Six
Belle Tire: Five
Fox Motors: One
Victory Honda: Zero
...I’m gonna ask a question that will rub some people the wrong way, but here goes…
Why do we have eight AAA teams at the 16U level when two or three would suffice? Basically the top line from five programs moves on to a significant level of junior hockey the following year, and maybe the top player or two off of the other teams. I’m not knocking that in any way; I think that’s great for the upper 25 percent of kids who can use 16U MI-AAA as a stepping stone to CHL, USHL and other high levels of junior. My concern is the other 75 percent that’s left chasing a dangling carrot.
I’ve said in the past and I’ll continue to hold to this sentiment; if you can play 16U AAA, play 16U AAA. With this recent research, that may need some altering. If you can be a top-line guy on a 16U AAA team, go be a top-line guy on a AAA team. However, if you’re not getting power-play time, and you’re not killing penalties, and you’re not the No. 1 goalie, and you’re outside looking in at the top six forwards or top four D, it may be worth reassessing your current situation.
AAA hockey at this level can be beneficial for that upper echelon of players to gain exposure in preparation for their upcoming USHL and OHL Draft years. It’s also the first year of eligibility for Division-I commitments. That upper crust, that 25 percent, could operate quite sufficiently on less than eight teams. I can’t be the only one who feels we have an oversaturated market for AAA teams, right? Let’s compromise. Cutting down to two or three teams is a bit extreme, I’ll admit — even if it’s appropriate for the number of elite-level players in this state — so how about we get down to four. Fair? That’s 80 roster spots for the best of the best in Michigan to showcase their talents and make one good push during their draft years. Consider it development teams for the development teams.
I think it’s important to separate 18U AAA from 16U AAA, and consider them two different beasts because the general makeup can change significantly. If the best players in 16U go on to join junior teams and the USNTDP the following season, what options are left to fill 18U rosters? I’m not suggesting there aren’t good players at the 18U level in Michigan, but simply pointing out that there’s even lesser resources and viable options than teams at the 16U level.
So how are AAA teams filling these voids? I think it’s worth noting that nearly 30 percent of 18U AAA rosters are composed of out-of-state players. To be honest, though, I’m okay with that. In Michigan, 18U kids have options and as I mentioned, the MI-HS pipeline continues to produce. So if an 18U player from Arizona or Texas or North Carolina feels they’d get better exposure in a hockey hotbed like Michigan and wants to come play a season for OJG, that’s a win-win for everyone.
With 137 Michigan-based players in 18U, seven currently maintain D-I commitments. Belle Tire, OJG and Victory Honda produced two apiece and Fox Motors had one from the ‘18-19 teams. A quick breakdown of where they went for the 2019-20 season...
37 returned to 18U MI-AAA teams
Three left for out-of-state 18U AAA teams
Six opted for MI-HS
One to the OHL
Six to the USHL
27 Moved on to Tier-II Junior
Eight to ACHA, ACHA II, ACHA III
18 moved on to Canadian Junior-A
Six to the NCDC
21 to the NAHL
...Here’s my dilemma when I see where these guys end up: With the exception of the OHL, Michigan High School Hockey pushes kids to all of these same leagues as well. Maybe the argument could be made that tickets to the USHL, NAHL and BCHL come more conveniently from MI-AAA than MI-HS… but... do they? I just pointed out there’s 46 high school alumni in those three leagues right now.
So my question here is what’s the incentive to 18U AAA over high school at this level when they both can get you to where you want to go? The answer to that question will be different for each individual person but I just look at the fork in the road and see one path for parents that’s way cheaper, significantly less travel and your kid doesn’t miss nearly as much school. And for the kids, almost every program is on the ice daily and you get to play games in an atmosphere of packed arenas with family, friends and classmates. And to top it all off, the same level of exposure you’d get playing AAA at this stage.
I’m quite confident the knee-jerk response would be, “The coach at our high school sucks. I won’t play for him.” There is no broad stroke brush that I can paint over hockey. Like I said, each individual person will have different priorities, views and values. You may very well be right about your coach. All I can say is that the 89 players from the Classes of 2019 and 2020 who left for junior hockey in the 2019-20 season represented 54 different schools. The DCC’s and Stevenson’s and Hartland’s are obvious, but what if I told you Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, Anchor Bay, Ann Arbor Skyline, Capital City, Mattawan, New Boston United and West Ottawa just to name a few, were moving guys on as well?
A good coach definitely helps. A great coach can be the difference. Ultimately though, the responsibility falls on the player. To reiterate, players have to go where they are going to play, be “the guy” and continue to develop their skills. The hourglass is running low when you reach the 18U age and I’m not sure there’s many players who can afford to be a third- or fourth-line depth guy or consistent backup goalie at this stage. The sand is starting to run out in your youth hockey career, and in the pursuit of junior hockey, you’ve got to be somewhere you can showcase those skills. I might know of about 138 teams in high school that have an opening on their top lines and power-play units, if you’re interested.
Here’s where I’m really gonna have a hard time. Now it might get a little nasty.
If you’re debating between high school and Tier-2 hockey, the answer is really simple. I don’t care who the coach is, situation doesn’t much matter, roster makeup is irrelevant. The answer is always high school hockey.
It is extremely disingenuous for any Tier-2 coach to suggest that this option somehow advances your hockey career over ANY high school team in the state. I don’t care if it’s the 138th ranked team in MI-HS, at the very least, it’s a lateral move from Tier 2. At the most, it affords players opportunities in the spring, summer and fall for exposure camps, leagues and tournament teams that Tier 2 simply cannot match.
I poured over 15 different Tier-I, Tier-II, Junior-A and Junior-B leagues, and scanned more than 208 rosters before I finally found an instance of a player going directly from a Tier-2 team to a junior team. The highest league I could find an example of this occurring in was the USPHL; a Tier-III league. My point is, more than 70 MI-HS alumni competed in the USPHL this past season, 24 of which walked across the stage at graduation last spring and immediately inserted themselves into a USPHL-Premier lineup the following fall. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from going to that league. It’s just important to point out that if the USPHL is the destination, high school hockey can all but guarantee you a spot at that level.
There’s a lot to unpack here. I’m sure you’ve got questions just like I did and maybe even responses of your own to the comments I’ve made. I welcome any and all constructive conversations on Twitter. If you think I’m an idiot, tell me why. Disagree with my thoughts, let’s discuss. Want to hear more, I’ve got plenty!