NAHL sets new single-season NCAA commitments record
June 24, 2016
Fittingly on the weekend of the 2016 NHL Draft, when so many players are realizing their hockey dreams, the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and its teams have done it again… and this time in even more impressive fashion. For the fifth time is as many years, the NAHL has set a new record for NCAA commitments in one season.
During the 2015-16 season, the NAHL’s 40th anniversary, the league has had a total of 240 NCAA commitments, and that number will continue to rise throughout the remainder of the summer. Another astonishing fact was that the NAHL set the record with only 22 teams during the 2015-16 season.
Of the 240 NCAA commitments, 174 (72%) of those were to NCAA Division I schools, while 66 were to NCAA Division III schools. Of the 240 NAHL players making NCAA commitments, 26 of those are NAHL alumni who played in the league prior to this season.
The numbers again don’t lie. No other junior league in the world saw as many NCAA commitments for their players, while they were actually playing in the league. The NAHL finished second only to the United States Hockey League (USHL) in total NCAA commitments this past season.
“First and foremost, this is about the players and the quality of hockey currently being played in the NAHL,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “Players are being educated and trained at a higher level, which creates a much greater level of competition across the board. Their development is at an all-time high. The amount of work that goes into player development, which not only includes the on-ice component, but also off-ice training, coaching, video analysis and nutrition, is a big reason why this accomplishment is possible.”
With 22 teams and 240 NCAA commitments, each team averaged close to 11 commitments this season. One of those teams who has had a recent run of success is the Janesville Jets. Their 15 commitments this season, which includes 11 players who played during the 2015-16 season, was one of the leaders in the league. Janesville Jets Owner and Governor Bill McCoshen, who is also the NAHL Chairman of the Board, echoed Frankenfeld’s sentiment about player development.
“Player advancement has become and continues to be the top priority of all of our member teams. I think everyone would like to win the Robertson Cup, but having a good number of NCAA commitments each season is something that we highlight and focus on as owners,” said McCoshen. “It is one of the primary conversations of every meeting we have. We continue to ask ourselves as owners, how can we keep increasing the opportunity for our players to move onto the next levels of hockey?”
Frankenfeld said that thanks in large part to the owners in the NAHL, the league has been able to enjoy some steady years of consistency and growth. “Our NAHL owners have continued to invest into their product and teams, which includes their coaches, their staff, their accommodations for the players, their arenas and their fans,” continued Frankenfeld. “The brand equity of being in the NAHL and operating a team has never been this high or this valuable. There is a lot of momentum because of more consistency among the ownership and teams.”
One of the big success stories this season was the commitments from the teams in the new East Division, which will be expanding to five teams in 2016-17 with the addition of the Northeast Generals. Between the four East Division teams this season (Aston Rebels, Johnstown Tomhawks, New Jersey Titans and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights) there were 50 NCAA commitments alone.
The Aston Rebels, who won both the East Division regular season and playoff titles, had 14 of those commitments and head coach Joe Coombs said that the credit is largely to the talent level of both the players and coaches. “I firmly believe that the coaches in our league are some the best young coaches in the country and the quality of player in the league is getting better each season. The ability for us as coaches to communicate with today’s players has taken a big step forward. The talent level is better than even just a few years ago,” said Coombs.
Coombs continued… “What’s important to our organization and probably any NAHL team out there is helping these players grow into more mature men. There is a process and culture that is one of growing and bringing an effort at getting better each day. We believe that if we can follow our process and believe in the positivity of our environment, that the winning will follow,” said Coombs. “It’s a deliberate and well thought out process. The sustainability of our league reflects directly back on the leadership of our teams. The NAHL allows each team to take care of its own process to build the foundations we see today.”
The NAHL Coach of the Year, John LaFontaine, guided his Wichita Falls Wildcats to the South Division regular season and playoff titles, as well as, an appearance in the Robertson Cup Championship Game. LaFontaine’s coaching background in the league dates all the way back to 2004 when he was with the Bozeman Icedogs. LaFontaine believes that because the league has put a priority on advancing their players, it has made great strides in recent years.
“The league has made development, exposure and promotion the highest priority for NAHL players and teams. From writing stories on an individual player basis or promoting stories written by each team's local media, the league office has done a remarkable job of making our players the focus and marketing them the right way. This has generated strong momentum for the NAHL to grow. This momentum has allowed the strong branding of the NAHL into the Tier III junior, as well as, the 18U and 16U levels as well in a well-established ladder of development.”
Another big piece of the puzzle for the league is the popularity of the league-wide events, which include the NAHL Showcase, the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament and the NAHL Robertson Cup Championship, which all annually see hundreds of NCAA and NHL scouts at each event during the season. Over half the NCAA commitments made this season came following the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament held in Plymouth, Michigan in late February.
“It is very significant that half the commitments come after our Top Prospects event, which goes back to and is a testament of our model. The NAHL Showcase, which has literally become the Greatest Show on Ice, sets everyone up on the grandest stage for an initial evaluation in September. Scouts can see how players develop, make an assessment throughout the season and then follow up with that later in the season with their progression. That model is the core root of our success,” said Frankenfeld.
For only the second time in league history, the Robertson Cup was hosted and run by the NAHL, diverting from the formats in the past, which included a play down, as well as, a team-hosted event similar to the Memorial Cup format, which had a run in the NAHL from 2004-12. Over 100 NCAA and NHL scouts attended this year’s Robertson Cup in Edina, Minnesota in the middle of May, which added another positive piece to the NAHL’s event component.
“Adding the Robertson Cup to our list of events just further reinforced that philosophy,” said Frankenfeld. “While there are only four teams, those teams are playing at a very high level and the scouts not only get another opportunity for evaluation, but also see a player compete when pressure is at its peak. The scouts are getting a look at a player who has evolved, matured and excelled throughout the season. Our events are all taking place at the same time of year and in the same location and I think that consistency has benefitted the scouts the most.”
McCoshen agreed with the event set up and its effectiveness. “The NAHL puts on fantastic major scouting events such as the NAHL Showcase, the Top Prospects Tournament and the Robertson Cup Final Four to promote our players. These events are all strategically timed and conveniently located for maximum scouting benefit.”
“I have been impressed with the professionalism and attention to detail that our league office has given to our NAHL Showcase, Top Prospects Tournament, Robertson Cup and Annual Coaches Meetings. It makes you proud to be part of this league,” stated LaFontaine.
Lastly, the NAHL may be seeing an annual increase in commitment numbers because of its ability to cater to all types of players. In recent years, the league has trended towards adding more younger players to the mix of older, more developed players. The average age of an NAHL player at the start of the season was right around 18 ½ years old.
“I think it is a two-pronged approach that works for all types of players. On the one hand, an older player who develops later in his junior career may pose less of a risk for NCAA teams. They are getting a more mature player, who has been through a season or two of junior hockey and all that it involves, whether that be being away from home, the travel, the competition, the exposure and playing on the road in environments you just can’t replicate until you have actually done it,” said Frankenfeld. “At the same time, the NAHL is a more attractive league to play in and attracting the younger players as well because we are keeping our players safe and have placed a premium focus in recent years on player safety. Guys can play faster and harder with the knowledge that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe, which includes our exclusive Department of Player Safety, and keep the focus on skill development.”
“I agree that the league has gotten a little younger. I think the younger players come in with something to prove and are very hungry for that opportunity to play a high level of junior hockey. This in turn, this pushes the older players because there are only 23 roster spots,” said Coombs. “Yes, it takes time for the younger players to garner experience, but by Christmas they are up to speed. The colleges are recruiting both the younger player for the future and the older player for more immediate need. What we are seeing is inquiries and interest on both types, so as a coach it is important to have a balance of both younger and older players.”
McCoshen agrees that one of the big reasons for the rise in commitments each season is because the league is trending younger. “I think there is significant evidence to support the increase in NCAA commitments, especially Division I commitments, is directly related to the league accepting and developing younger talent. They are showing these scouts that they not only are good hockey players, but can also handle the rigors of NAHL competition against players that may be older than they are,” stated McCoshen.
So, when considering what league may be best for the junior-bound hockey player, consider the sheer evidence that the NAHL continues to prove: A record-breaking season resulting in 240 NCAA commitments and still rising. It also includes committed ownership that is providing players top quality coaching, skill development and community-supported teams in stable markets, and one-of-a-kind events that provide unparalleled exposure with the continued support from the NCAA coaches themselves, who continue to support the numbers that when it comes to earning an NCAA commitment while playing junior hockey, no one does it better than the NAHL.
“Heading into our 41st season, the NAHL is in the best position it has ever been in both on and off the ice. That’s a credit to strong leadership from our Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, our tireless and extremely talented staff and to our Executive Committee and Board of Governors that plans for the future and executes to succeed,” concluded McCoshen.