FRISCO, TEXAS – The North American Hockey League, the League of Opportunity, once again lived up to its name this past season as the league posted another banner year for NCAA commitments, and the number will continue to rise this summer.
To date, a total number of 166 players that played in the NAHL this past season or were an alumni of the NAHL from last season, committed to an NCAA school during the 2012-13 season. That averages to almost seven players per NAHL team, or roughly one-third of players on NAHL rosters, committing to an NCAA program last season.
“As we continue to provide more opportunity for players to train, develop and play NAHL hockey we see the level of play increase every day for our student-athletes,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “The fact that the vast majority of players come into the league without an NCAA opportunity, but then earn one while playing in the NAHL, is the most gratifying part of it for us. Our commitment numbers continue to increase annually and prove that the NAHL is one of the best at developing its players and ultimately providing an opportunity to move onto the next level.”
Of the current 166 total players committed, 99 (or 60%) committed to an NCAA Division I school, while 67 players committed to NCAA Division III schools. A total of 154 players who played in the NAHL at some point during the 2012-13 season committed to NCAA schools, while 12 players, who are NAHL alumni, committed while playing in other junior leagues.
The numbers simply don’t lie. Besides the Tier I United States Hockey League (USHL), no other junior league in North America had more college commitments this past season than the NAHL.
The NCAA Division I commitments include those to all six current Division I conferences including: the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA), Big 10, Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC), Hockey East, National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
Of the 24 teams that competed in the NAHL last season, the Robertson Cup National Champion Amarillo Bulls boasted the most commitments for the second year in a row. In 2012-13, 16 Bulls players ended up with an NCAA commitment, which gave the Bulls the best of both worlds… a championship and a bundle of NCAA commitments.
“It is our #1 goal to move players onto the next level and we have been fortunate to have some really good, quality guys here the past three seasons,” said Amarillo Bulls head coach Dennis Williams. “I think when you have enough players competing at a high level and developing the way our guys did this past season, the winning will take care of itself, and we were fortunate to have the right mixture of guys to do that this past season. However, it means just as much to us to see a player get a commitment while playing for us and then move onto the next level and have success there as well. That tells us we are doing our job as coaches in preparing a student-athlete who will enter the NCAA a more mature player and can handle the rigors of both school and hockey.”
Wichita Falls Wildcats head coach Paul Baxter, who played almost 500 games in the NHL and has coached in the NHL over 11 years and the NAHL for the past five years, said that having a great support system is essential in finding and developing players to realize their NCAA dream. “It begins with having a good scouting staff and finding players that you believe can develop into elite players and who have the greatest potential. We try and find players that are good, quality young men with excellent character,” said Baxter. “We then want to creative a positive atmosphere and culture on and off the ice where the players feel like they can strive to be successful. I think the NAHL has a great track record of doing this across the board and we continue to see quality commitments each season.”
One of the big reasons behind the commitments besides the level of play the NAHL has set the standard at is the continued success of the exposure events that are put on by the league each season.
Headlining these events is the annual NAHL Showcase, which will be celebrating its 11th anniversary this fall. The 2013 NAHL Showcase will take place in Blaine, Minnesota from September 18-22 and has fortified itself as a can’t-miss event for every NCAA program and NHL team as they get their first look at some of the best and brightest hockey talent North America has to offer. The 2012 NAHL Showcase this past season drew over 300 professional, college and junior scouts.
“The Showcase was the first place I got noticed,” said Wichita Falls Wildcats goaltender Evan Cowley, who recently committed to the University of Denver. “It was there that several NCAA programs, including Denver, first showed an interest in me. I think it is great stage for players to be on because the games mean something in the standings and you have to be prepared from the moment the puck drops in your first game of the season. Then, to follow that up with playing for the NAHL 18U Selects Team at the Top Prospects Tournament, was a cool experience. It was great to play with all those talented players and see how you stacked up against those from other divisions.”
Cowley was also a product of the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, which has become another must-see event. Not only are the players who participate getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine on the brightest stage with the rest of the NAHL’s elite, but the benefits they are seeing from it are usually immediate and swift.
“The purpose is to celebrate and reward the players for their accomplishments through the first five months of the season. The Top Prospects is really a who’s who of those players still looking for an NCAA opportunity or those younger players looking to impress the NHL scouts,” said Frankenfeld. “It offers the scouts in attendance an opportunity to see how a player has grown and developed and also brings everyone under one roof in our unique vertical exposure model to watch them compete.”
Fairbanks Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart, who has coached in the last two NAHL Top Prospects Tournaments, says that the event is one that has provided an additional opportunity for NAHL players to earn an NCAA opportunity. Stewart should know well, as the Ice Dogs had 13 NCAA commitments this past season, 11 of which were to NCAA Division I schools.
“When you are with these guys in the lockerroom and on the bench, you can see the excitement in their eyes because they stare across the ice and all you can see in the stands is a sea of scouts. It has to give them a little extra adrenaline and motivation knowing that many eyes are upon them,” said Stewart. “At the same time, it is very encouraging for all of us involved with the NAHL to know that the events are working in getting these players seen and exposed and that they are ending up with opportunities at the next levels of hockey because of what is transpiring at these events.”