On Wednesday evening, the United States Premier Hockey League announced the creation of the National Collegiate Development Conference, which will begin play next season as the first tuition-free junior hockey league based on the east coast.
The league will operate outside the jurisdiction of USA Hockey after the USPHL’s application for Tier II status—in which players do not pay a tuition fee or pay for equipment, but do pay for billeting—was denied by USA Hockey’s junior council.
The crux of the issue came down to how the USPHL planned to pay the added cost of player tuition. While the NAHL, currently the only Tier II league in the United States, mostly survives on a combination of ticket sales, sponsorships, tryout fees, and owner generosity, the USPHL’s business model for tuition-free largely relied on passing those expenses down to affiliated youth teams, which ultimately was the basis for USA Hockey to deny the league a Tier II designation. Not all agreed with that decision, but as mandates go, keeping youth hockey fees lower probably ranks higher on the list for USA Hockey than creating a(nother) Tier II junior league.(Don’t @ me. The NTDP is funded through money from the NHL, not player fees.)
So it should be interesting to see how this experiment goes. The name is, of course, a laughable rip-off of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Though it’s not anything new. Four years ago, the league branded itself as the USPHL—no affiliation to the USHL—just a few years after the NAHL created an affiliate league called the NAPHL. One can debate whether that is intentionally misleading or just a serious lack of creativity.
Name shenanigans aside, the league taking a step to being a Tier II equivalent perhaps isn’t a terrible idea. It does give eastern players one clear path in junior hockey if they choose to stay close to home. I doubt it ever regularly competes with the USHL for top-end players because the USHL is still going to be the league where most of the best play. But it does provide another alternative for players that the USHL might not be their best fit.
It will also be interesting to see if the league competes with the NAHL any more than it already does. I suspect not likely. The NAHL is drawing from a much larger pool which should still give them an edge in talent. The NCDC has proximity to many D-1 schools working in their favor, but the NAHL does an excellent job with their showcases to the point that exposure has never been an issue for their players.
More than anything, I think the NCDC will be on the same level as the USPHL. Some very good players, a number of D-1 college players, but not quite the depth you’d see in the USHL or NAHL. Regardless, it will be interesting to see them move forward without USA Hockey and to see if this alters the junior hockey landscape at all.