The cities of Fairbanks (Alaska), Shreveport (La.), Philadelphia (Pa.) and Aberdeen, (S.D.) could not be more different from each other.
Except in one respect – they each have a North American Hockey League team that shares a mission held sacred by all 23 NAHL teams.
That mission is simple: Bring in hockey players who are dedicated to improving their game, expose them to NCAA and NHL scouting and help lead them to make a college commitment.
More and more players have been following this model as the years have gone on. The NAHL, in fact, has increased its college commitments by more than 1,300 in the space of five seasons. No
other single league had as many NCAA college commitments made by players while actively playing in that league.
Last year, the NAHL placed 305 players into NCAA colleges, a new record for the league. More than 70 percent of those 305 players advanced to the NCAA Division 1 level.
The league could break that record, as it stood at 142 commitments as of Jan. 29, a higher number than at the same time as last year’s record-breaking season.
“The players that have moved on from the past now playing at the NCAA level are doing so well, the NCAA coaches have returned more to the NAHL,” said Scott Langer, Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations for the Aberdeen Wings. “The league is giving a lot of young men the ability to move on to the next level. We had 305 overall commitments last year, and that’s pretty outstanding with the amount of teams in the league.”
Defenseman Benjamin Schultheis, of the Minnesota Magicians, is ranked 191st among North American Skaters in the Midterm Rankings for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Courtesy / NAHL
“It’s obviously a good league, and it seems to be stronger than ever,” added Trevor Stewart, Head Coach of the three-time Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs. “The NAHL does a terrific job of promoting and moving its players on to higher levels of hockey, in particular college hockey.”
NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld is in charge of keeping all of the teams focused on this end goal on a day-to-day basis.
“I think we’re having another great year,” said Frankenfeld. “I always put the credit back to our team owners, who are taking the risk. They are succeeding, through the coaches they hire and the resources they give them.”
Frankenfeld talks to many college and NHL scouts to gauge their interest in NAHL players, and he hears better reviews every year.
“I hear the college scouts say the league is deeper and has more skill,” said Frankenfeld. “We’ve always had skilled players, but now we have the skill and the depth. There are more skilled players than in the past.”
This is obvious when looking at the NAHL players leaving midseason to join NCAA Division 1 college teams. Johnstown’s Donovan Ott committed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and he has already played two games there this season. Former Bismarck Bobcats captain Jared Resseguie moved midseason to Denver University.
“We have lost a few guys mid-season to college programs. That shows how ready some of our players are to move,” said Frankenfeld. “It is a challenge for the individual teams to lose their big guy, but they all celebrate it when they go. They’re always happy those players have the opportunity to compete in college hockey right away.”
Lone Star Brahmas goaltender Mitchell Gibson, seen here against the New Jersey Titans, is the 18th-ranked North American Goaltender for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Courtesy / NAHL
The National Hockey League is also taking notice of NAHL talent on a regular basis. Four players made the NHL Central Scouting Service’s mid-season rankings, including three goalies. The NAHL’s reputation for developing goalies is shown in such current NHL talent as Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg) and Ben Bishop (Dallas).
The NHL scouts are continuing to follow the NAHL because of this talent, and because the NAHL makes it so easy with events like the Showcase in September, and upcoming in February, the Top Prospects Tournament in Plymouth, Mich.
Opportunities to excel
The players of the NAHL have the opportunity to hit the ice for 60 regular games per season with their teams, with each of those games accessible to scouts by means of Hockey TV broadcasts.
However, the NAHL also makes scouting its league easy by putting all of the teams in for four of those 60 games at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., every September.
As the season passes its midpoint, all eyes turn to Plymouth, Mich., where each NAHL Division sends its best non-committed players to the USA Hockey Arena.
There, at the Top Prospects Tournament (this year to be held Feb. 27-28), these players will contend against each other, but also against two NAHL Selects teams that are comprised of players with NCAA commitments or who are on the radar of NHL Central Scouting.
The NAHL Selects teams underline the growing relationship with the National Hockey League. The Central Scouting Service helps to put together a group of the NAHL’s best draft-eligible players (some already committed to colleges).
“The league does a great job with the Top Prospects Tournament,” said Philadelphia Rebels Head Coach Joe Coombs. “The players that have gone have all benefited very well. There’s always [college] teams that don’t get into your building, but they are all there at the Top Prospects.”
“That event has continued to evolve. You can bring the best non-committed players and shine a light on them, so the colleges and NHL guys can focus on those guys,” said Frankenfeld. “We also have a group that is put together in conjunction with the NHL, and that features younger players. With the NHL including our league in its Declaration of Principles is a win for the owners and everything that the NAHL represents.”
“When you walk into that rink,” added Karlis Zirnis, Head Coach of the Shreveport Mudbugs, “you see pretty much every college and pro team. Exposure-wise, you can’t get anything better in two days. Scouts get to see the players and talk to the players, without having to travel from city to city.”
The league will take the Robertson Cup in May to Blaine, Minn., home to the annual Showcase. This year’s Robertson Cup will be played at Fogerty Arena, with a best-of-three series between the four division champions (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3), followed by an epic one-game final.
The Robertson Cup also brings in a vast amount of NCAA and NHL scouts for one last look at the talent on the league’s four best teams.
The North American Hockey League teams are always looking for excellence both on the ice and off the ice, and they follow every opportunity to develop and advance their players.
They are also always on the lookout for the next wave of players coming up. Stewart said it can sometimes be tough to convince young players from the Lower 48 states to move their life to Fairbanks, Alaska.
“It’s always a challenge, but at the end of the day, we sell out every single game here,” Stewart added. “We treat our players well, and they get to experience the great state of Alaska. All I can say to
prospective players is don’t let the non-hockey related things come into conflict with a hockey decision.”
The Ice Dogs travel by plane to all of their games, and they get the college exposure by playing non-division games through the Midwest and in the Eastern Division as well.
Along with straight up recruiting and tryout camps for the next season, the NAHL teams get a chance to see what players could be coming down the pike for two seasons away, thanks to the NAHL’s expanded Future Prospects Tournament and Combine Series.
“We started the NAHL Combine product a few years back,” said Frankenfeld. “We’re fortunate to have Tony Zasowski as our Director of Player Personnel. He has created a product that gets the NAHL out to different geographical areas and helps to educate folks in those areas about the league, what’s important for players educations, and information on junior hockey. This gives players the opportunity to be in a tryout situation a year or two before officially trying out for a NAHL team.”
“It’s a great thing to have so many kids under one roof at one time at the Combines,” added Langer, of the Aberdeen Wings. “You have only so many guys who can pound the pavement [i.e. scout] for you.”
Bismarck’s Ryan Ullan makes it a hat trick of NAHL goalies ranked by the NHL Central Scouting Service for the 2018 Draft. He is ranked 24th among North American Goalies. Courtesy / NAHL
There are many ways to get to the NAHL, however, including playing in the North American Prospects Hockey League and/or the Tier-3 NA3HL.
“Our goal in the NAHL, the NA3HL and the NAPHL is that players advance to college. Everyone’s path is different,” said Frankenfeld. “If you’re in the NAPHL [Midget 18U, 16U and 15U], you might play the next year in the NA3HL or the NAHL or even the United States Hockey League. Your college commitment might come through those steps, or any combination of them.”
“It’s nice to have the NA3HL and NAPHL teams under the NAHL umbrella,” said Langer. “The coaches of the NAHL spend a lot of time at those leagues’ showcases and all-star events. It’s just an added benefit for our league.”
Every year, there are stories of players who have earned college commitments after playing at more than one tier of the North American Hockey League’s Ladder of Development.
NAHL players come from overseas, they come from all across the United States, and they come from right down the street from their teams’ home rinks. With the undeniable college commitment success, the NAHL will continue to be a key destination as players seek to make their hockey dreams come true.