Shjon Podein chose to spend the 1986-87 season in the United States Hockey League merely as a means of keeping his dream of playing at a higher level alive.
The Rochester, Minn., native parlayed a national championship with his hometown Mustangs into an opportunity at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which led to an 11-year career in the National Hockey League. At the time, his ascent to the highest echelons of hockey made him somewhat of a rarity among USHL graduates.
A quarter of a century later, nearly 100 percent of USHL players with NCAA eligibility receive a Div. I scholarship, and 40 players with USHL ties heard their names called in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Not a bad way to kick off the 10th anniversary as the only Tier I hockey league in the United States.
“When I came up, the USHL was more of a spot where you’d go if you didn’t have a Div. I scholarship coming out of high school,” said Podein, who now serves as a family advisor to young players and has seen nearly three dozen of his clients compete in the USHL in the last four years.
“Now, you’ve got guys being drafted in the first round. You have guys who already have college commitments coming into the USHL.
“The numbers are just through the roof. These guys are actually coming to the USHL to prepare for what they already know is going to be the next step in their careers. It’s a tremendous difference from when I played.”
The USHL took a bold step on Aug. 23, 2002, when the 22-year-old Junior league and USA Hockey unveiled the Tier I model, a concept six years in the making and driven by inconsistencies in Junior hockey programs across the country. The USHL committed itself to providing a first-class hockey experience for the country’s top-tier players.
So, USHL teams became financially responsible for their players’ equipment and housing accommodations. The Tier I designation also established regulations for coaching, training, playing facilities, education and travel. As a league with a healthy fan base, the USHL was financially equipped to meet USA Hockey’s requirements.
“It was extremely difficult to even negotiate the concept of Tier I hockey because leagues and teams didn’t want to be left behind,” said former USHL president Gino Gasparini, a driving force behind the league’s move to Tier I.
“The goal was to create a better environment for the player that was fan-driven and subsidized by the teams. There were standards of operations that not all teams were equipped to handle.
“Unfortunately, there was some contraction. But there was also expansion, and the end result is the Tier I movement certainly benefitted the game in America and benefitted the athletes coming up in the game. It forced organizations to do things better for the athletes.”
The USHL also developed player distribution regulations to promote competitive balance. It placed a greater emphasis on its draft and eliminated tenders, which tended to be a bigger benefit to the traditionally stronger teams.
In 10 seasons, the USHL has crowned 10 different Clark Cup Playoff champions, and two others have advanced as far as the finals. Not bad for a 16-team league.
“I tell our players every year, and I tell anyone else who will listen to me, this is the most competitive Junior league in the world,” said Mark Carlson, the head coach of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders since 1999.
“It’s extremely tough to win in this league. There are no easy nights and no automatic wins, and we’re one of the few Junior leagues in the world that can say that.
“Forget about being able to take a night off, you can’t take a shift off in this league, and that is great for developing everyone involved in the league, from players to coaches to people in the front office. That level of competition is obviously great for the fans, too.”
The majority of the players in the USHL spend one or two years at the Tier I level before moving on to the college or professional ranks. Combined with quality coaching, the balance of power can shift on a year-to-year basis.
“If you’re not going to be a difference-maker at a Div. I school right out of high school, why not take a year and get your game to another level?” Podein said.
“There’s no better place to do that than the USHL. Instead of taking your lumps on the fourth or fifth line in college, you can go to the USHL. Then, you’ll be more mature and, physically, you’ll be ready to step in and be a difference maker.”
Peter Chiarelli, the general manager of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, can attest to the level of professionalism in the USHL. After the Dubuque Fighting Saints submitted paperwork to the league in late 2009 to add Chiarelli to its ownership group, it took more than two weeks for him to gain the league’s approval.
“That surprised me a little bit,” Chiarelli said. “But, looking back, it’s a good sign that it took that long. That means the league does its homework, which is important. That tells me it’s a league that is very well run.
“The USHL has really evolved before my eyes since the early 1990s. It’s grown from more of a regional league to one with more of a national scope. Players know it’s the place to go to further their education and their hockey careers, so you’re getting the best players from all over the country and the world.”
But the USHL strives to be better. League president and commissioner Skip Prince said the league plans to submit to USA Hockey even higher Tier I standards for business operations, rink requirements, off-ice facilities, staffing, billet families and academic supervision.
“The original standards for Tier I were frontier-building, but 10 years later, we’ve surpassed them,” Prince said. “We’ve rededicated ourselves and rewritten standards that are even higher than what USA Hockey calls for. It’s not what we aspire to, it’s what we’ve already fulfilled.”