With junior seasons around the corner, it’s worth remembering what a responsibility the franchises of major junior and the USHL have on their hands. In almost every case, parents are sending their teenagers away to different cities, and often different states, provinces or even countries. The dream is for the young man to come out the other side as an NHLer, or failing that, a pro hockey player. At the least, you hope they have a positive experience.
But which programs deliver the goods? In the past week, I surveyed a meaty cross-section of player agents, advisors, NHL scouts and execs to find out what the best organizations in junior hockey are right now. The criterion was pretty open-ended, but my ultimate question was this: given the choice, which organization would you want your son/nephew to play for?
The winner, overall, was the OHL’s London Knights. This is probably not surprising to many junior fans, as the Knights have been a juggernaut in the past decade, winning three of the past six OHL championships and adding a Memorial Cup title in 2016. Since Basil McRae and brothers Dale and Mark Hunter bought the franchise in 2000, the Knights have developed NHLers such as Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and Rick Nash. More recently, London has produced Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Max Domi among many others.
The key, says second-year GM Rob Simpson, is aiming high.
“A lot of what I learned is that we spend a lot of time every day figuring out how to develop players,” he said. “From the top down, everyone has a work ethic to help in development.”
The Knights look towards the NHL for their cues and having ex-Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter as their bench boss helps immensely. From the video sessions to new training methods, the Knights braintrust is always trying to evolve.
When it comes to landing players from Europe or the U.S., London is at the top of the pile and that translates to wins, which becomes a virtuous recruiting cycle.
“You have a culture of players who have success here,” Simpson said. “We usually have guys at the top of the standings when it comes to points, or last year with Tyler Parsons it was save percentage.”
There is an expectation in London that the Knights will be winners every year and Simpson believes that winning spurs a player’s development; it becomes a habit. And with 9,000 fans cheering them on at every home game, winning is a lot of fun for the Knights, too.
Here’s a look at the other top programs in junior hockey.
OHL runners-up: The Hamilton Bulldogs and Erie Otters tied in this category and organizational braintrusts are key here. The Bulldogs have a well-respected coach in John Gruden, plus a GM with NHL executive experience in Steve Staios. Meanwhile, the Otters boast a great hockey mind in GM Dave Brown, who has given Erie strong coaches such as 2017 OHL champion Kris Knoblauch and now Chris Hartsburg.
QMJHL winner: The Quebec Remparts were the unquestioned winner in the ‘Q’ and the fact they play in a building better than some NHL rinks certainly helps. But the Remparts have also gotten quality leadership from coach/GMs such as Patrick Roy and Philippe Boucher.
Runners-up: The Halifax Mooseheads have churned out NHLers recently, with Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Nikolaj Ehlers leading the way and Nico Hischier, Timo Meier and a real high-end 2018 draft class to come. From Dominique Ducharme to Jim Midgley, the team has kept its coaching level high.
WHL winner: This was the tightest race of all, but the Portland Winterhawks won out in a squeaker. With Mike Johnston’s return, the Winterhawks have a coach who knows how to support players, develop NHL talent – and win a lot of games along the way. Portland has also been adept at attracting import picks and Americans who were also strongly considering the NCAA route. Plus, it’s a great city to live in.
Runner-up: The Kelowna Rockets were a very close second here and the franchise’s near-constant playoff runs are only part of it. Kelowna is a beautiful city to live in and the facilities are top-notch. Plus, the team has graduated a ton of NHL talent over the years, including a number of elite defensemen. Tri-City also got some love thanks to GM Bob Tory.
USHL winner: Dubuque may be a relatively new team, but the Fighting Saints have been good since the beginning, winning a championship their first season (2010) and another in Year 3. Johnny Gaudreau, Zemgus Girgensons and University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery were all part of that inaugural team, while part-owners Peter Chiarelli and Phil Falcone both have NHL ties.
Runner-up: The Sioux City Musketeers have been adept at bringing in Europeans such as Eeli Tolvanen (NSH) and Aapeli Rasanen (EDM) lately, but they also have an excellent coach in Luke Strand. Agents and advisors like that he’s a teacher. Plus, the team plays at a great arena.