Celebrating its 37th season in 2012-13, the North American Hockey League (NAHL) is the largest USA Hockey-sanctioned Junior A circuit with 24 teams representing some of the nation's emerging hockey markets as well as traditional hot beds in 13 states.
What once offered a fleeting chance at a collegiate scholarship and a trip to the "Red Barn" - Olympia Stadium, where the NHL Detroit Red Wings played their home games - the NAHL has evolved into a proven pathway for young adults between the ages of 16-20 to develop into outstanding collegiate and professional players while playing in some the nation's state-of-the art facilities.
In its halcyon days of the mid- and late-1970s, the then Great Lakes Junior Hockey League survived as a rugged five-team Michigan-Ohio circuit with the Paddock Pools Saints and Detroit Jr. Wings serving as its cornerstones.
The Chuck Robertson-owned Saints set the tone for excellence, capturing seven consecutive titles from 1977-84 while sending a flurry of players to the collegiate and pro ranks. The NAHL recognized the league patriarch by naming its playoff championship trophy - the Robertson Cup - in his honor.
The league, which forged ahead in the mid-'80s despite being reduced to three teams at certain junctures, went through a metamorphism after the regional circuit was re-christened the North American Junior Hockey League in 1984.
By the mid-'90s, the NAHL blossomed into two divisions with 10 clubs across the Upper Midwest.
During this time, the Compuware Ambassadors emerged as a junior powerhouse, winning eight of 10 NAHL titles from 1986 to 1995. The Detroit amateur hockey juggernaut closed out the millennium by taking league crowns in 1998 and 1999.
Compuware's decade-long dominance was only interrupted by the Kalamazoo K-Wings, who won NAHL titles in 1991 and 1993, and the Springfield Jr. Blues, who won back-to-back championships in 1996 and 1997.
Tom Anastos' tenure as league president coincided with the league elevating its profile, which was highlighted by the U.S. National Development Team's entry into the NAHL. USA Hockey placed its 18U team into the league as a part of a new national development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. The U.S. National Team's presence raised the standard of play while providing a viable alternative to Canadian junior programs for the nation's emerging talent.
The league's long-held reputation as a fertile ground for collegiate prospects was confirmed when league luminaries Kip Miller (Compuware) of Michigan State and Brian Holzinger (Detroit Jr. Wings) of Bowling Green captured the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in 1990 and 1995 respectively. Michigan State's Ryan Miller (Soo Indians) received college's highest honor in 2001, which prompted an NAHL run by former U.S. National Under-18 Team players on hockey's equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Former NTDP and University of Minnesota player Jordan Leopold captured the Hobey in 2002 followed by U.S. 18U alums Matt Carle (University of Denver, 2006); Kevin Porter (University of Michigan, 2008); and Blake Geoffrion University of Wisconsin, 2010)
By the mid-'90s, several NAHL alums were also making a profound impact in the National Hockey League (NHL) as Philadelphia Flyer Eric Lindros (Compuware) and Edmonton Oilers duo Doug Weight (Bloomfield) and Todd Marchant (Niagara Scenics) starred for their respective teams while Brian Rolston (Compuware), Danton Cole (Detroit Jr. Wings) and Shawn Chambers (Redford Royals) were vital members of the New Jersey Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup squad.
The ranks of NAHL-pedigreed players in the NHL continues to swell. Included are some the game's brightest stars like New York Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro (NTDP), Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (NTDP), Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson (NTDP), Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane (NTDP) and Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler (NTDP).
Geographically, the NAHL's footprint reached beyond of the Upper Midwest for the first time with the addition of the Texas Tornado in 1999. The Frisco, Texas-based program went on to capture the Robertson Cup in three straight seasons in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
The Tornado established a Texas beachhead as a model junior organization, prompting further intrastate expansion. This season features four Texas-based NAHL teams with the Wichita Falls Wildcats, Corpus Christi IceRays, Amarillo Bulls and Tornado.
The 2003 merger with the Rocky Mountain-based American West Hockey League (AWHL) turned into a watershed moment as the NAHL grew from 11 teams to 21 while becoming the largest junior circuit in the country.
The move reshaped the league into what would become four geographical divisions spanning five time zones.
The addition of the Fairbanks (Alaska) Ice Dogs extended the NAHL's reach into the nation's 49th state. The Alaska Avalanche became the state's second team in the league in 2005 when it started out as the Wasilla Spirit. A third NAHL Alaskan-based team was added when the Soldotna-based Kenai River Brown Bears commenced play in 2007.
The AWHL adsorption also enabled league expansion into the Dakotas with the addition of the Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats, who are joined by the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings this season.
For the first time, the merger saw the NAHL cross the U.S.-Canadian border as the Fernie (British Columbia) Ghostriders played during the 2003-04 season. This season, Dawson Creek sees a return of NAHL hockey to the Canadian province.
Manifest Destiny remains at the core as in the past five years the NAHL has had tremendous growth. The league has made forays into Washington, with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, as well as into California with the Fresno Monsters. The NAHL's exciting brand of junior hockey has also prompted teams to spring up in what where once traditional minor-pro outposts as the Amarillo (TX) Bulls, the Corpus Christi (TX) IceRays, the Flint, Mich.-based Michigan Warriors, the Odessa (TX) Jackalopes and the Port Huron (MI) Fighting Falcons.
In the last two years, the league continued its growth with teams in markets spanning across the country. The league said hello again to an old friend as the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings were once again granted membership to the league after their first run in the NAHL from 1989-93. The Minot (ND) Minotauros and Brookings (SD) Blizzard were added to the league's upper Midwest footprint. The Motor City Metal Jackets moved to Jamestown, NY to become the Jamestown Ironmen. The Alaska Avalanche moved to the historic hockey city of Johnstown, PA and became the Johnstown Tomahawks, while the Traverse City North Stars were sold and moved to Sault Ste. Marie, MI.
The league continues to be a trendsetter in fulfilling its mission to develop Midget and high school players for collegiate and professional hockey success, presenting NAHL Showcase and Top Prospects Tournaments in Blaine, Minn. (September) and Troy, Mich. (February). The hockey extravaganzas enable one-stop shopping for hordes of college and pro scouts to see some of the continent's most promising Midget and junior-aged talent. Players receive further exposure through live Webcasts of NAHL games presented by FASTHockey. Also, through comprehensive statistics and timely game reports, NAHL.com promotes the teams' and players' on-ice achievements. Off the ice, the league's emphasis on scholarship and personal growth is seen through academic support and warm experiences gained by billet programs in which players stay with host families. The team's rigorous 60-game schedule is patterned around weekend games to minimize conflicts with schooling.