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Junior hockey is ice hockey competition generally for players between 16 and 20 years of age. Junior hockey leagues in the United States and Canada are considered amateur (with some exceptions) and operate within regions of each country.
In Canada, the highest level is major junior, and is governed by the Canadian Hockey League, which itself has three constituent leagues: the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. The second tier is Junior A, governed nationally by the Canadian Junior Hockey League.
In the United States, the top level is Tier I, represented by the United States Hockey League in the midwest. Tier II is represented by the North American Hockey League, and there are various Tier III leagues throughout the country. A limited number of teams in the Canadian major junior leagues are also based in the United States. In Europe, junior teams are often sponsored by professional teams, and act as development and feeder associations for those organizations.
Junior hockey is one level above minor hockey, the level of ice hockey played by youth.
Junior hockey in Canada is broken into several tiers, and players aged 16–20 at the beginning of the season are eligible. Hockey Canada is enacting rules designed to limit the number of 16-year-olds allowed to play junior hockey, preferring most remain at the midget level.
Major junior hockey is overseen by the Canadian Hockey League, which acts as the governing body for its three constituent leagues:
The CHL currently places a cap of three 20-year-old or overage players per team, while only four 16-year-olds are permitted. While fifteen-year-old players were formerly permitted to play a limited number of games per season at the CHL level, they are now permitted to play only if they are deemed exceptional by the CHL. Four players to date have qualified under this rule (all in the Ontario Hockey League's territory): centre John Tavares in 2005, defenceman Aaron Ekblad in 2011, centre Connor McDavid in 2012, and defenceman Sean Day in 2013. CHL teams are currently permitted two "imports" (players from outside Canada or the US, generally from Europe or Russia) each, though this cap is expected to be reduced to one within a couple of seasons.
CHL teams are considered professional by the NCAA; thus any player who plays a game at the Major Junior level loses his eligibility to play for universities in the United States. He retains eligibility for Canadian universities however, and all three leagues have programs in place to grant scholarships for any player who plays in these leagues provided he does not turn professional once his junior career ends. Many of the top North American prospects for the professional National Hockey League (NHL) play in the one of the CHL leagues.
The champion of each league competes in an annual tournament with a predetermined host team for the Memorial Cup, Canada's national Major Junior championship.
Up until 1970, the leagues that became Major Junior and Junior A today were both known as Junior A. In 1970 they were divided into Tier I Junior A or Major Junior A and Tier II Junior A. In 1980, the three Major Junior A leagues opted for self-control over being controlled by the branches of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and became Major Junior hockey, Tier II Junior A became the top tier of hockey in these branches and became Junior A hockey.
Junior A (junior AAA in Quebec) hockey is one level below the CHL. Junior A was referred to as Tier II Junior A in the 1970s, until what was called Major Junior A broke away from their regional branches in 1980 and became the Canadian Hockey League and Major Junior hockey, at this time, the term Tier II was dropped from what is now Junior A hockey. It is governed by the Canadian Junior Hockey League, which oversees eleven constituent leagues across Canada. The national championship is the Royal Bank Cup.
Junior A teams are considered amateur by the NCAA, thus players intending to go to American universities tend to choose this route rather than play in the CHL. Junior A teams tend to play in much smaller markets than CHL teams, and thus play to much smaller crowds.
Junior B (junior AA in Quebec) was created in 1933, to differentiate between teams capable for Memorial Cup competition and those who were not. The major championships across Canada are the Sutherland Cup in Southern Ontario, the Carson Trophy in the Ottawa District, the Coupe Dodge in Quebec, the Don Johnson Cup in the Atlantic Provinces, and the Keystone Cup which represents all of Western Canada, from British Columbia to Northwestern Ontario.
Junior C (junior A in Quebec) is generally a local based system, but is considered competitive in some regions, and serve as seeding or farm-teams for Junior B teams. Ontario Junior C Hockey has 6 rounds of playoffs (up to 42 games of best-of-seven playoff rounds) for the Clarence Schmalz Cup which was first awarded in 1938. The Ontario playdowns are played for between 6 of the Province's 7 different regional leagues. In Quebec and West of Manitoba, Junior C hockey tends to be an extension of the local minor hockey system and is sometimes called Juvenile or House League. In Ontario, Manitoba, and the Maritimes, Junior C is run independently of minor hockey systems, though with the same mostly recreational purpose.
Junior D was popular in the 1960s and 1970s in dense population centers, but fell off in the early 1990s. In Quebec, Junior D is now known as Junior B and is run strictly by minor hockey associations. The last Junior D league was the OHA's Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League, the result of the merger of the Northern, Western, and Southern Junior D leagues in the late 1980s. The SOJHL moved to Junior C league in 2012.
Teams at the lower level of junior hockey tend to operate as extensions of local minor hockey systems. While some future NHLers come from the lower levels of junior hockey, they are few. There is no national governing body at these levels, only provincial.
As in Canada, junior hockey in the United States is subdivided into several levels. Currently, there are eight American teams in the Canadian Hockey League: four teams in Washington and one in Oregon in the Western Hockey League; and two teams in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania within the Ontario Hockey League.
The United States Hockey League (USHL) is currently the only Tier I league in the country, it consists of teams in the central and Midwestern US. The USHL provides an alternative to Major Junior Hockey for kids who want to play in the NCAA, before seeking the NHL. While playing in the USHL, all player expenses are paid for by the team; no membership or equipment fees are charged. Unlike Major Junior teams however, the pro drafting is significantly less and the free-college stipend does not exist. Quality of play in the USHL has improved to Major Junior levels in the past 15 years, with about 10% of NHL players having played USHL in their career (compared with 40% who have played NCAA Division I hockey at some time). Between 80 and 90 percent of USHL players play NCAA hockey, as this is the main reason for playing Tier I instead of Major Junior in Canada.
Currently the North American Hockey League is the only Tier II league in the United States. The NAHL is the largest junior hockey league in the US and consists of teams spread across the Western two thirds of the United States with a significant concentration of teams in the central and southwestern parts of the United States. The NAHL, like the USHL, provides young players an alternative to Major Junior hockey, although the skill level is significantly lower than Major Junior hockey and typically filled with those who would not or did not make the roster of a Tier I team. While playing in the NAHL, all player expenses minus room and board are paid for by the team.
The United States currently has ten Tier III leagues: the United States Premier Hockey League, Eastern Hockey League, American West Hockey League, Eastern Elite Hockey League, North American 3 Hockey League, Minnesota Junior Hockey League, Northern Pacific Hockey League, Western States Hockey League, Empire Junior Hockey League and the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. In addition to paying for room and board, players at the Tier III level pay a fee, commonly ranging from $4,000 to $6,500. This is for all accounts and purposes an amateur level, although some players go directly to NCAA Division I schools, most Tier III Junior A players are looking to increase their skills in hopes to move up to Tier I or II, other players go directly to NCAA Division III and ACHA schools.
Prior to July 2011, USA Hockey split Tier III into Junior A and B divisions.
The Amateur Athletic Union has returned to sanctioning the sport of Ice Hockey. Prior to the 2011-2012 season, the Western States Hockey League became the first large-scale junior league to exit USA Hockey in favor of the AAU.
Some leagues that refer to themselves as Junior A also operate outside the control of the Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. Presently, the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League in Ontario is operating as an independent league in Ontario and western New York. The United States Premier Hockey League operates in the Northeast United States as one of the most highly regarded Tier III leagues in the nation. The upstart Continental Junior Hockey League has only two teams for its first season. Additionally, in Manitoba the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League is operating as a non-sanctioned league. While a leagues can claim to be comparable to Junior A leagues, due to the lack of regulation the actual level of play may vary. In addition to independent leagues, there are also independent teams, such as the Jamestown Jets, although these usually result from league problems or other disputes.
In Europe, junior teams are usually associated with a professional team, and are used by professional teams to develop their own prospects. One example of this is the J20 SuperElit league in Sweden or the Minor Hockey League in Russia. Such leagues are sometimes dubbed major junior hockey leagues.
The lack of an amateur draft in Europe, other than in Russia, means that the onus is on the teams to sign the most talented young players they can get, and the presence of an affiliated junior team provides a place for young players who aren't yet ready for the rigours of the professional game to develop. However, not all players on a European junior team are necessarily the property of their professional club, and may elect to sign elsewhere.