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Making it to the USHL

04/09/2015, 4:45pm CDT
By Special to

Craig Smith, Andrej Sustr, and John Carlson all took different routes to the USHL, but each took advantage of the League's development path to help them reach the NHL.

“How do I get to the USHL?” It’s the most common question we get. Players from all different regions, levels, and teams can play in the USHL. There is not one recommended path, but there is one requirement: Hard work.

“I try and preach to kids no matter what level they’re at, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Angelo Ricci, director of hockey operations for the Colorado Thunderbirds and a USHL alum. “Go through the process. Don’t worry about what your linemates are doing. Don’t worry about what guys are doing on other teams. Every route is different for each player.”

Look at a current snapshot of some of the USHL’s top players.  Notice the different paths they took to get here. Tier 2, Tier 3 junior leagues, high school/prep hockey, midgets, and international leagues – all lower levels feed the USHL with premier hockey players, and the USHL in turn prepares them for college and beyond.

USHL Combine

Where do you start? The USHL Combines are an excellent way to get in front of USHL and college coaches. This year’s combines will be held at Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park, Illinois. If you’re interested in attending, fill out and submit this questionnaire.

“The combines are a great event for us,” said Omaha Lancers head coach Brian Kaufman. “It’s a chance for us to see these kids up close and personal.”

Players must be invited to the USHL Combines by the USHL Player Development staff. The USHL Combine consists of on-ice skill work and games as well as off-ice physical and cognitive testing.

2015 Combine Dates:

'99 birth year | April 23-26

'97-'98 birth years | April 30-May 3

‘00 and ‘01 birth years | July 28-31

USHL Draft

The USHL Draft consists of two phases. Phase One is for “Futures” players, which includes those with a 1999 birth. Phase Two is open to all players with junior hockey eligibility that are not already property of a USHL team.

2015 USHL Draft Dates:

Phase One | May 4

Phase Two | May 5

Not drafted? Don’t sweat it. Craig SmithJohn CarlsonAndrej Sustr – you’ve likely heard of these players. None of them were USHL Draft picks, but they still found a way into the League before moving on to successful college/NHL careers.

Tryouts and Call-Ups

Just because a USHL team drafted a player does not mean they are guaranteed a spot on that team. Each team holds tryouts – and the tryouts are intensely competitive. Undrafted players can attend any team’s tryout, so long as they’re invited. Every team will have somewhere between 60-80 players in attendance. Each roster must be whittled down gradually. Eventually the roster must be cut to 23 players, and each team can carry an affiliate list of 18 players. Those affiliate-listed players can be called up to practice or play for their USHL team throughout the season.

Five Pieces of Advice

Ricci, a former University of Denver Pioneer and Omaha Lancer, has been helping many players at the midget level get to the USHL. Coach Kaufman played four years at the University of Miami (Ohio), where he served as captain his senior season. Both have advice for talented young players looking to play USHL hockey.

1. Get Educated

Learn everything you need to know about the junior hockey landscape. There are a lot of options out there. Make the educated decision.

“Every kid has to evaluate what the best route is for him,” Ricci said. “Educate yourself. Talk to coaches and scouts. Use your resources. There are no bad questions. If you don’t ask them, they’re never going to get answered.”

2. If You’re Good Enough, You Will Be Noticed

USHL scouting staffs cover a lot of ground.

“With the scouting staffs that the teams in our league have, I definitely feel that if you’re good enough, whether you’re in a smaller market or a bigger market, you’ll be noticed,” Kaufman said. “We have guys on our team that are from Los Angeles, Dallas, Minnesota, Chicago, everywhere.”

Players can be proactive and contact the coaches and teams.

“There’s no hurt in reaching out,” said Kaufman. “That’s a good way to hear about him, but again, our scouting staff does such a good job that most of the letters we get, we’ve already seen or are going to see these players. Our scouting staff makes sure they see everybody that they feel would have a chance of playing in our league.”

Some teams allow players to come out and practice with their team.

“When they have the opportunity, I allow them to go skate or play with the USHL team that they were drafted by or a team that’s interested in them,” said Ricci. “Even if it’s just to go practice and not play a game, go shadow a player and ask them questions about what life is like and what the daily routine is like. Players can reach out and ask USHL coaches for this opportunity. The worst they can say is ‘no’, right?”

3. Character Matters

There is no question on-ice talent is needed to play in the USHL, but what often separates the players who do make it from the ones who don’t is character.

“How good of a team player are you? What’s your character?” said Kaufman. “There are so many good players that are capable of playing in our league. For us, the difference in selecting players is a lot of off-ice stuff.”

USHL coaches and scouts do their homework. They talk to a prospective player’s current coaches and even opposing coaches. They talk to parents and other knowledgeable people. USHL coaches aren’t just taking one person’s word for it.

“We watch body language,” Kaufman said. “If you make a bad play, do you go back at it right away and be a competitor or do you feel sorry for yourself?”

4. Preparing for “The Life”

Life in the USHL is demanding. It is designed to prepare players and students for college hockey and beyond, therefore the schedule and responsibilities are intensive.

“My goal as a coach is to develop a well-rounded player who understands the rigors of playing at the next level in terms of your time management,” said Ricci. “It’s not all just about hockey. They have to learn how to deal with the media, social media, fans, academics, being away from home for the first time. Some kids can go off the wrong path very quickly.”

5. Didn’t Make the Cut? Don’t Be Discouraged

There are only so many roster spots every year. Many players will be cut.

“Don’t be discouraged,” said Ricci. “Depending on your age and current situation, figure out what’s right for you. You can play another year of midgets, or if you’re out of high school, you could try playing in the North American Hockey League or a Tier 3 league. Continue your development. As long as you’re visible and continue to develop, you don’t want to close the door. People don’t realize that you can still play in the USHL when you’re 20 years old. Heck, maybe you’ll just get one year in the USHL, but make that year count.”

Kaufman was cut from the USHL three straight years. He played in the North American Hockey League and still earned a college scholarship.

“If you get cut, your career isn’t over by any means,” said Kaufman. “You just have to find the next best solution. That might be the North American Hockey League. That might be going back to midget hockey. That might be a lot of other different junior leagues. You just have to find the situation that’s right for you.”

What About the NAHL?

The USHL is the only Tier 1 junior league in the country while the NAHL is the only Tier 2 junior league in the country. It has helped develop and prepare players for the jump to USHL and college hockey. The NAHL is a great option for players unable to secure a spot on a USHL roster. It is a key part of the USA Hockey development path.

Here are NAHL tryout and camp dates and locations. The NAHL Draft is scheduled for June 9, 2015.


Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 13th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2014-15.  A record 35 players were chosen in the 2014 NHL Draft and more than 300 players on team rosters this season are committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.

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