The North American Hockey League, the only Tier II junior league in the U.S., entered its 45th season Sept. 13 with two new members and one goal that all 26 teams share.
The league has surpassed 300 college hockey commitments each of the past three seasons, setting a new league record in the process each time. The current record is at 350, the number of commitments last season when 231 of them were on the Division I level.
NAHL President and Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said the league’s owners and coaches have made NCAA commitments their top priority.
“The goal is to get them ready to play college hockey,” Frankenfeld said in a telephone interview earlier this month.
Although the league schedule started nearly a week earlier, it picks up steam each season with the annual NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, which ran Sept. 18-21 with a total of 50 games, at least a dozen each day with all 26 teams making appearances.
The showcase features inter-division play, bringing opponents together for the only time all season. During most of the rest of the season, teams compete strictly within their four separate divisions.
The league has added two teams, franchises separated by more than 2,000 miles, to that mix. The New Mexico Ice Wolves will play in Albuquerque and the Maine Nordiques will play in Lewiston, giving the NAHL at least one franchise in 16 states.
“We’ve grown coast-to-coast,” said Frankenfeld, who took over an 18-team league, producing about one-third of the current NCAA commitments, in 2007.
Nolan Howe, grandson of hockey legend Gordie Howe, will coach the Nordiques.
“We are thrilled that the growth of the North American Hockey League is continuing in the East,” Frankenfeld said in a story on the league website. “Our East Division has thrived and grown because there are a lot of players in the region that want to play the quality hockey the NAHL represents in front of all the NCAA programs in the East.
“Since the inception of the East Division four years ago, we have seen a rapid increase of players from the northeast playing in the NAHL and achieving an NCAA Division I opportunity.”
Maine joins the Jamestown Rebels, Johnstown Tomahawks, Maryland Black Bears, New Jersey Titans, Northeast Generals and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights in the East Division.
The growth continues in the southwest as well. New Mexico joins the Amarillo Bulls, Corpus Christi IceRays, Lone Star Brahmas, Odessa Jackalopes, Shreveport Mudbugs and Topeka Pilots in the South Division.
“As the NAHL continues to evolve, the growth of hockey in the South has played a large role in our league’s success and the addition of the Ice Wolves continues to solidify the footprint and add another strong community-based program,” Frankenfeld said.
The NAHL also remains strong in the areas where it has a longer history.
The Aberdeen Wings, Austin Bruins, Bismarck Bobcats, Minnesota Wilderness, Minot Minotauros and St. Cloud Blizzard make up the Central Division while the Midwest Division consists of the Chippewa Steel, Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Janesville Jets, Kenai River Brown Bears, Minnesota Magicians and Springfield Jr. Blues.
When the NAHL Showcase started Thursday, another league record was set when 210 scouts registered.
It will not be the last high-profile event of the season for the NAHL. The league holds its Top Prospects Tournament in February and will decide its title and the USA Hockey Tier II National Champion at the Robertson Cup Championship in May.
Most recently, Aberdeen won the title to complete the 2018-19 season.
The changing landscape is not just reflected in two new franchises pursuing the Robertson Cup.
This is the first full season since the NAHL and United States Hockey League, the only Tier I junior league in the U.S., reached a new agreement on player movement between the two leagues. USHL teams can now more easily recall designated affiliate players from the NAHL and temporarily loan players to NAHL teams, under certain conditions.
Earlier this year, USA Hockey and the NAHL announced an enhanced partnership within the ladder of development. That partnership includes USA Hockey providing additional resources to the league to continue across-the-board improvements, including player development, coaching and officiating.
There is a strong existing base on which to build.
Those record college commitment numbers do not just express quantity. The quality of players is shown in numbers, such as three of the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award as top goalie being NAHL alumni. There were seven NAHL alumni among the NCAA Division I All-Americans and 11 NAHL alums contributed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s repeat national title.
Above that, 61 NAHL alumni played in the National Hockey League during the 2018-19 season.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.