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Ice Hockey Structure in the USA

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The United States ice hockey structure includes elements from traditional American scholastic high school and college athletics, affiliated and independent minor leagues, the unique “major junior” leagues, as well as other various amateur junior and youth hockey leagues. The hierarchy of the ice hockey league system forms a pyramid with many regional minor and development leagues making up the base of the pyramid and a linear progression through the professional minor leagues leading to the National Hockey League at the top of the pyramid.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is widely considered to be the premier professional ice hockey league in the world with top players from multiple countries participating in the league.

College ice hockey is ice hockey played between colleges with their teams composed of enrolled students. In the United States, college hockey is played between colleges and universities with the competitive governance structure established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA currently has three divisions for ice hockey, Division I, Division II and Division III. Of the three divisions only Division I and Division III have a championship sponsored by the NCAA. The NCAA’s top level, Division I, has 59 teams in six conferences: Atlantic Hockey, Big Ten, ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The NCAA Division I Championship is a 16-team, single-elimination tournament, divided into four, 4-team regional tournaments. The winner of each regional advances to the Frozen Four to compete for the national championship. In Division III hockey there are 74 programs in 9 conferences. The current Division III national championship format is an 11-team, single-elimination bracket.

Junior hockey is played by athletes between 16 and 20 years old. The leagues are normally organized on a franchise system and can play many more games than are normally played at the high school or college level. Major junior hockey is organized into three leagues run by the Canadian Hockey League: the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Most of these teams are in Canada, but there have also been teams in the American states of New York, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Major junior players lose NCAA eligibility because they have agents, sign contracts and are given stipends. Two USA Hockey-sanctioned leagues based in the United States, the Tier I United States Hockey League (USHL) and the Tier II North American Hockey League (NAHL), are run in a similar fashion to the Canadian junior A teams in order for the players to keep NCAA eligibility.