I've spent a decent amount of time on here talking about the European hockey model, but this site isn't exclusively about European hockey by any means. You can review my look at the top European leagues from last summer here.... the teams are not all the same, but pretty close, and I'll do previews for each league as the summer rolls on.
The other major professional hockey system is located, of course, in North America. The leagues may be familiar to you all, and I'm not going to do a basic rundown on them like I did with the European leagues... but I'm going to look at the totality of the system, the entertainment options for fans in various markets, and see how that measures up with the game's growth at the grassroots level. For more on that last point, check out the United States of Hockey's post(s) on growth by state in amateur hockey for the past 20 years.
As an introduction, here is a bit of a rundown on how the leagues stack up:
National Hockey League (NHL): 30 teams, 23 in USA (in 16 states plus D.C.), 7 in Canada (in 5 provinces). The top league in the world, with players from all the top countries, based on a franchise system controlled by the headquarters in New York City.
American Hockey League (AHL): 30 teams, 26 in USA (in 15 states), 4 in Canada (in 4 provinces). The only 'AAA' minor league in North America. Its the top developmental league for the NHL, with a majority of players contracted to NHL teams. It has a more heavily North American distribution of talent than the NHL, though relatively young European players (aged 20-24) do come and play in this league. Generally comparable in talent level to Finland's SM-Liiga or Switzerland's NLA. The league's head office is in Springfield, Mass., and like the NHL, it is operated on a franchise system, and franchise relocation is quite common.
ECHL: 20 teams, all in the USA, in 16 states. Billed as the top 'AA' hockey league in the country, the ECHL has a pretty fluid relationship with both the NHL and AHL, with most NHL and AHL teams having ECHL affiliates. The league has undergone a lot of changes, rebranding itself simply as the 'E' after absorbing the West Coast Hockey League in 2003. The league is almost exclusively made up of Canadian and American players, and the head office is based in Princeton, NJ.
Central Hockey League (CHL): 15 teams, all in the USA, in 11 states. Also considered a 'AA' minor league, the CHL runs a bit more independently, with origins in the old Western Professional Hockey League, which brought pro hockey to Texas in the 1990s. There are still four teams based in Texas, but the league also has reach in the mid-West, with teams from South Dakota to Indiana. There are a few more Europeans in this league than the E, but again at this level we're looking at a very strong North American contingent. The current head office is in Tempe, Arizona.
Federal Hockey League (FHL): 9 teams, 7 in USA (in 6 states), 2 in Canada (both in Ontario). Now we're getting into the character leagues... the single 'A' level of professional hockey in North America. The Federal has only been around for one season, and the leagues at this level rarely prove to have financial viability. But the teams often make an impact, or the cities keep entering new teams in the new leagues when they come and go. Both rural and urban areas get involved... there are teams in Brooklyn and teams on Mohawk reservations. There are no veteran restrictions on this league, as it doesn't bill itself as a developmental circuit. For some reason, despite the league being based in the Northeast, the head office is listed as being in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL): 8 teams, all in the USA, in 7 states. The SPHL has been around for seven years now, operating in the American southeast. That's a pretty solid run for a single 'A' franchise, and four of the franchises have been around since the beginning. As I alluded to above, it bills itself as a developmental league, a feeder league for the ECHL. They also go with 3 on 3 OT instead of 4 on 4, as a curiosity. The league's headquarters are in Charlotte, North Carolina.
All-American Hockey League (AAHL): I'm pretty sure this league is on the brink of folding. They started the season with five teams, but ended with only two: one in the Chicago area (but in Indiana), and the current league champions in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the league's head office is located. The league's website hasn't been updated since the championship was awarded in January... but with no word of folding, I'm including the two remaining single 'A' franchises in this review.
Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH): This is a semi-professional hockey league in Quebec that has attracted a following locally, with its heavy fists and heavy Quebecois content. Its not really a notable circuit for talent, but when talking about hockey entertainment in Quebec, you can't avoid it. They have a presence in a few cities that the QMJHL has not been able to crack, and likely do have interest in.
Canadian Hockey League (CHL): The top junior leagues in the world are the three that make up the Canadian Hockey League: the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League. The QMJHL is now entirely Canadian based, with seventeen teams located in four different provinces in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, but the other two leagues have some American flavour. The OHL has three American teams, with the other seventeen located in Ontario. Meanwhile, the WHL has five American teams in the Pacific Northwest, plus seventeen Canadian teams scattered throughout the four Western Canadian provinces. Only Newfoundland and Labrador and the three northern Canadian territories are unrepresented, while four different states also have teams.
United States Hockey League (USHL)/North American Hockey League (NAHL): These are the prime American feeder leagues for the college hockey circuit, classified below the major junior level of the CHL but still of high quality. The USHL is the premier Jr. A hockey league on the continent, with players consistently getting drafted to the NHL, including a few in the first round every year it seems. Having the USNTDP participate in the league helps the draft numbers for sure, but the other fifteen teams, located in the American heartland, do their part as well. The NAHL has become the second tier of American junior hockey, with 28 teams that cover a lot of the same geography as the USHL, plus an excursion into Texas and New Mexico as well as the Pacific Coast, and one team in British Columbia.
Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL)/Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL): The CJHL is a true Canadian barnburner circuit: its the primary feeder league in Canada for the NCAA circuit, but also for major junior players who haven't quite made the cut. Its made up of seven different circuits with teams in every province except, again, Newfoundland. Its notable for its presence in places where major junior has had a tough time including: Vancouver Island, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario and small towns and cities in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The GMHL is not affiliated with Hockey Canada at all, and is considered the 'rebel' league of Canada, allowing unlimited import players and providing opportunities for players from all around the world to play competitive hockey in Canada with the hopes of catching some scouts eyes, be it pro or collegiate.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): There are six different Division 1 conferences, as well as ten different Division 3 conferences, predominantly scattered throughout the Eastern and mid-western United States. The US Hockey program is designed to feed the collegiate level, and the NCAA is for the top players who attract scholarships to play competitive hockey while completing their schooling. The hockey is of high quality, and is growing in popularity and visibility. There is also the non-scholarship options in the ACHA, but I'm not too concerned about that level as its really not a huge option for consumers, much like the CIAU doesn't attract much attention in Canada.
In total, we're looking at 30 NHL teams and 487 various minor league/junior/college teams of varying degrees of relevance to the hockey fan. For two countries that combine to make up over 343 million people, and a very large percentage of the world's hockey players. Where is hockey growing, and are fans in some areas getting enough entertainment options? These are the things I'll be exploring in this series.