What is the path that hockey players take to the NHL? Unlike professional basketball and football, in which players are almost always drafted out of college, the route to the NHL may not be as simple.
Firstly, there is indeed college hockey, which has produced some of the most talented stars in today’s game – including Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri (Michigan) and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (North Dakota).
On the Capitals roster, Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison were linemates at Michigan, David Steckel skated for Ohio State (boo), and Brian Pothier and Tom Poti played for RPI and Boston University, respectively.
An impressive slate for a 23-man roster, considering that there are only 58 Division I hockey programs (which pales in comparison to the 119 Division I football teams, or the 347 D-I basketball schools).
Although college hockey has not traditionally been thought of as a basin of NHL-level talent, the number of draft picks from the NCAA has risen dramatically in recent history. To be exact, 279 college-hockey alums saw ice time in the 2008-09 season – approximately one-third of the league.
So where else do NHL players come from? Well, an all-encompassing term you may have heard is "junior hockey." This is a very broad phrase though, so let’s break it down …
Junior hockey is used to describe various levels of amateur hockey in both the United States and Canada, with those who participate in these leagues being between the ages of 16-20.
In Canada, there are several tiers of juniors, with the top being major-junior. This is operated by the Canadian Hockey League.
Within the Canadian Hockey League, there are three sub-leagues: Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL). While I said junior hockey was amateur, players in this league do receive a meager stipend, therefore the NCAA considers it a professional-level sport and voids its participants from playing collegiately.
Below the three major-junior leagues, there are four other levels of juniors: A, B, C and D. Junior A is the most competitive and is operated by the Canadian Junior Hockey League. Junior A players do get drafted, but most come from major-juniors. The Junior B, C and D leagues are less competitive.
Let’s get out of Canada and move back to the United States. The top level of junior hockey consists of just one league: the United States Hockey League (USHL). This system could be equated to Junior A hockey in Canada, in terms of the level of play. And like college hockey, draft picks from the USHL are also becoming more prevalent (there are also USHL players that move on to play at the NCAA level).
There are other junior levels in the United States, but none that are particularly noteworthy … you don’t really get drafted into the NHL through these ranks. NHL players may have partaken in teams in these programs when they were younger, but they were not drafted from them.
To sum it up: if you are a NHL-capable player, you will have most likely played major-juniors or college hockey. Although, players being drafted from the USHL or Junior A level is becoming more common. There are also NHLers who just play in Europe.
Speaking of which …
There are European junior teams, but it would take too long to go into those. There are a lot of European players who move to Canada to play major-juniors, such as the Czech-native Thomas Fleischmann, who had a stint in the WHL after he was drafted in 2002.
Below is the Capitals current roster. I listed the junior team each Cap played for, with the strictly European players just having their country of origin by their names.
Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden)
Matt Bradley (OHL)
Jason Chimera (WHL)
John Erskine (OHL)
Eric Fehr (WHL)
Tomas Fleischmann (WHL)
Boyd Gordon (WHL)
Mike Green (WHL)
Mike Knuble (NCAA)
Brooks Laich (WHL)
Quintin Laing (WHL)
Brendan Morrison (NCAA)
Shaone Morrisonn (WHL)
Michal Neuvirth (OHL)
Alex Ovechkin (Russia)
Brian Pothier (NCAA)
Tom Poti (NCAA)
Jeff Schultz (WHL)
Alexander Semin (Russia)
Tyler Sloan (WHL)
David Steckel (NCAA)
Jose Theodore (QMJHL)
Semyon Varlamov (Russia)
Then, as many of you might know, once a player is drafted, he will most likely play for either an East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) or American Hockey League (AHL) team. These leagues are affiliated with the NHL and serve as a minor-league system essentially. The Capitals ECHL team is the South Carolina Stingrays and the AHL affiliate is the Hershey Bears.
In conclusion, I have described above the most common paths to the NHL. There are players in the league who have had stints elsewhere and come up through other programs, but it is less common.
Oh, and I would also like to note that my alma mater, the University of Michigan, has the most players (22) currently in the NHL of any college. Thank you.