Midwest-based junior teams ready to roll into 2021-22 season

By Jim den Hollander



This is the first of a series of articles re-introducing Midwesthockey.info after a long layoff. This will outline the different junior leagues the include teams from the Midwest.

While hockey at every level endured a crazy 2020-21 season due to the pandemic that affected the entire world, junior hockey was closest to normal as far as scheduling went. But that doesn’t mean there were no alterations.

Teams did what they could to get games in, including in some cases traveling to different states, playing entire seasons on the road, or starting up a new temporary home base. It seems like things will mostly be back to normal at least at the start of the new junior campaigns. Below is a quick look at the junior leagues that involve Midwest-based teams

Tier 1 – OHL and USHL

There is only one Tier 1 league in the USA and the good news – for us at least – is that it is entirely in the Midwest.

The United States Hockey League includes 16-teams in two Divisions. The East Division includes teams from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa while the Central Division includes Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

All 16 teams will open the season Sept. 23-26 at a Showcase tournament in Pittsburgh with other regular season games beginning Oct. 1 and wrapping up a 60-game campaign April 1. Four teams from each Division will advance to the post season and begin competition for the Clark Cup.

The Ontario Hockey League includes 20 teams – 17 from Ontario and three others from the USA. Two of them, the Saginaw Spirit and Flint Firebirds play in Michigan while the Erie Otters play in Pennsylvania.

This site will focus on the Spirit and Firebirds who will play in the West Division along with the Sarnia Sting, Soo Greyhounds and Windsor Spitfires.

Regular Season league play begins on Oct. 7 and continues until April 3 before 16 teams move on to start the OHL playoffs, playing toward the J.S. Robertson Cup. The OHL playoff champion will continue to play for the Memorial Cup which brings together champions from the three Major Junior Leagues in Canada, along with a host team.

Tier 2 – NAHL, NOJHL and SIJHL

There are two Tier 2 Hockey leagues in the USA. The North American Hockey League which includes 29 teams, 12 of them based in the Midwest.  The Central Division includes six teams, based in Minnesota, (North Dakota, Iowa, and South Dakota. The Midwest Division has eight teams. Five of them are based in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois with the other three in Alaska. The other divisions include teams from the Eastern states and the Southern states.

The NAHL will begin play on Sept. 8 with each team playing 60 games and wrapping up on April 17. Division playoffs will begin the weekend after, and the final two teams will square off for the Robertson Cup.

The Superior International Junior Hockey League is one of 10 Canadian Tier 2 junior hockey leagues, bringing together teams from Northwestern Ontario as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin. The seven-team league includes the Wisconsin Lumberjacks and Thief River Falls Norskies. The SIJHL schedule will begin on Sept. 17 and continues until March 26.

The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League includes a dozen teams – 11 from Northern Ontario and one, the Soo Eagles, from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Teams will begin play on Sept. 16 and wrap up the regular season on March 13.

Both the SIJHL and NOJHL will have a league playoff champion advancing to the Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament, joining the Ontario Junior Hockey League champion and a host team playing in a weeklong tournament that will advance one representative to the RBC Championship that will determine a Canadian Tier 2 National Champion.

The other Tier 2 American League is the NCDC which as of this season is entirely based in the Eastern USA.

Tier 3 – USPHL, NA3HL

Over the past decade, the United States has seen a group of more than a half dozen junior leagues whittled down to a few, including the USPHL and NA3HL which have grown into super-leagues.

The NA3HL is billed as a feeder league for Tier 2 NAHL teams. The 34-team league includes five divisions. Two divisions – the Central and West each contain six Midwest-based teams. The Central League has teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri while the West has teams from Minnesota and Iowa.

The NA3HL will be first in America to drop the puck with games as early as Sept. 5 and the league will wrap up on March 6. Top teams will advance from there into the post season, making their way toward the Fraser Cup Championship tournament.

The USPHL Premier League is a 70-team circuit with 11 teams, playing in four American regions – North, South, Midwest, and West.

The Midwest Region includes three divisions including the Great Lakes with seven teams based in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; the Midwest East with seven teams based in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan and the Midwest-West which includes eight teams out of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The regular season will begin Sept. 11 and stretch until Feb. 27. Playoffs will send 16-teams to a National Championship tournament that will crown the USPHL Premier National Champion.

The league also as an ‘Elite’ Division with another 20 teams – all based in the North and South Regions and run as a sort of ‘JV’ feeder system for the Premier teams. They will advance eight teams to the same National Championship tournament run simultaneously with the Premier version.

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