Bridge Builder

USHL Plays A Vital Role In Preparing Players For The Next Rung On The Development Ladder
Scott Powers

Like any good youth hockey coach, Omaha AAA Hockey Club coach David Wilkie is all about the future success of his players.

Wilkie’s goal is to first develop and maximize his players’ abilities within the framework of the Omaha AAA Hockey Club. Once that is reached, Wilkie’s next goal is find a landing spot for his players to continue their development and gain further exposure to college and professional scouts.

Often, that spot has been in the United States Hockey League. The Omaha AAA Hockey Club is one of the many youth hockey programs throughout the United States that feeds its top players into the USHL, the country’s only Tier 1 hockey league.

“When players are ready, they need to make the next step, bottom line,” said Wilkie, a former NHL player. “The USHL is the top Tier 1 Junior league in the country and they have the right to take those players. It’s our job at AAA to develop them, so they can get to that point.

“Nobody wants to be a AAA player their whole life. They’re trying to get to the next step and the next step and the next step.”

Wilkie’s own son, Chris, is one of the many success stories in the USHL. Chris played for the Omaha AAA Club, went on to play three seasons in the USHL, committed to the University of North Dakota and was selected in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers.

For players like former Waterloo Black Hawk Brock Boeser, playing in the USHL allows them an opportunity to develop skills that will serve them well at the next level.For players like former Waterloo Black Hawk Brock Boeser, playing in the USHL allows them an opportunity to develop skills that will serve them well at the next level.

Chris Wilkie’s path is an example of the major selling points the USHL provides for youth hockey programs. The first one is that the USHL finds Div. I programs for its players. Youth programs feed into the USHL and the USHL feeds into college hockey. Ninety-five percent of USHL players commit to Div. I hockey programs.

“There are only 425 players in our league, and every player with the exception of a few gets a D-I scholarship,” said Muskegon Lumberjacks general manager and director of hockey operations John Vanbiesbrouck, who is also on the USA Hockey executive committee.

“Whether they have a D-I scholarship coming in, the whole thing gets validated when they get to our league. So nobody can validate a launch of a player … like the USHL. One of the main sources that everybody is going to focus on is that path [of] making it to D-I hockey comes through the USHL. And the numbers all support that.”

The other major selling point is how the USHL can be a player’s path to the NHL. That has become more true in recent years. In 2009, the USHL had 18 current and past players selected in the NHL draft. Since 2011, the USHL hasn’t had fewer than 37 players taken in a draft. It had 51 players selected in 2014 and 47 in 2015.

“Part of the pitch is simply getting guys to recognize that if you want to be an elite player, the USHL more than likely is going to be a stop for you along the way,” USHL commissioner and president Bob Fallen said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s an absolute must, but it’s something you want to consider if you go talk to the NHL scouts and college scouts and everybody else. This is a league that has the respect of their personnel scouts.”

While the NHL draft has become a significant promoting tool for the USHL, Fallen has also attempted to share some of that spotlight with the Junior programs that began the development process.

“Our league and Junior hockey in general is only as good and only as strong in America as the developmental leagues underneath us,” Fallen said. “Whether it’s high schools in Minnesota or Midget teams in Michigan or club teams all over the country, we want to support them.

“[Our players are] part of the American development system. We want to salute that and promote that. That’s what we’re a part of. We’re the top end of the food chain. That doesn’t mean we’re the only thing that they eat.”

As a former college assistant coach, Jason Lammers has been involved in recruiting USHL players to college hockey, and is now recruiting players from youth programs to the USHL as the first-year head coach and general manager of the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

“I think [the USHL’s] really become a goal for the U.S. player,” Lammers said. “They want to play in the USHL and those [youth] coaches at those levels are letting the USHL have their players.

“I think it’s a healthy situation for both sides.”

Fallen has heard the concern that the USHL sometimes tries to recruit youth players before they’re ready to make that jump. It’s something he spoke to his general managers about recently.

“I said as much as we want the best players in our league, we want to emphasize the notion that kids should come to this league only when they’re ready,” Fallen said. “I also think we need to do a better job in the future of recognizing that we can’t undercut the developmental model below us. We should be supporting those guys.

“I think there’s a movement afoot that might see a higher draft age for the NHL that might slow down the race a little bit.

“Personally, I raised my kids in Minnesota. I like the Minnesota high school model. I don’t like to see kids leave before they’re physically and mentally prepared to play Junior hockey.”

Scott Powers is a freelance writer based in Chicago.




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