The American Hockey League (AHL) has changed throughout its time as a hockey platform, and in Toronto, it’s change showcases itself in front of one of hockey’s most crazy populations.
A league that was once a player’s first exposure to the bright lights of professional hockey no longer has the fanfare that it once did. Nearly every player who steps onto AHL ice has played in front of a raucous crowd before, and many on more important stages than the AHL one presents.
For most NHL organizations, their AHL team is a place to groom prospects that are too young or too raw for NHL action. Although, in Toronto, that is changing. The Toronto Marlies, the affiliate of the NHL’s Maple Leafs have begun to transition the Marlies to become the place where players on the verge of the NHL can play, and the more raw prospects can bide their time a step down with the (East Coast Hockey League) ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers. That does not mean that there are not players who are fresh out of the junior ranks on the Marlies.
The majority of the players on the roster developed within the Canadian system, playing the U20 CHL. but there are a handful of players that came through the American college system, a pathway that is becoming more common as the game continues to grow in the USA.
Jeremy Bracco, Teemu Kivihalme, Joseph Woll, Ryan Johnston,Jordan Schmaltz and Michael Kapla are the players which came through the American system, and they have all established themselves as regulars in Toronto’s lineup.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of NHL draft picks who opt to do a year or two in college before turning pro, this is also the case for those that choose the Canadian pathway, although they have no choice as they are required to play in either the NHL or the CHL until their 20. That means no AHL for them, and more time playing against weaker junior competition
What the NCAA route offers, is the opportunity to turn to pro hockey sooner than the CHL allows.
On the Marlies, there are different examples of how players have used the NCAA. For Bracco, he has seen both sides of the junior pathway, playing a year at Boston College before moving north to further his game in the CHL.
The move is one that is rarely seen, but it has benefited Bracco and has led him to where he is now, one of the Maple Leafs top prospects. the payoffs are undeniably positive. He got the experience and knowledge of training and lifestyle management that comes with playing in the NCAA and was able to make the transition to the professional lifestyle when he moved to the CHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
In speaking to The Athletic prior to the beginning of the NHL preseason, Bracco reflected on his first year in pro hockey, saying “It’s day and night between junior and pro.” He then went on to speak about how it could have been more difficult if he had been used to a weekend focused schedule like the NCAA.
It is true that there is no way to replicate the pro game truly, but the CHL does a better job at it than the NCAA.
The schedule is one of the challenges that has stood the test of time, the thing that has not is the culture shock and bright lights that sued to come with the professional transition. Junior hockey has so much focus in the modern age. Whether its the gameday presentation or the beat media, every player is exposed to a professional atmosphere before they make a penny.
While Bracco took one unique route, his Marlies teammates Teemu Kivihalme took another route of his own. Rather than the CHL/NCAA combination, Kivihalme played in the Finnish junior ranks before attending Colorado University in the NCAA, but that’s a topic for another time.
The ECHL and AHL are no longer the major shocks that they once were for players stepping into the higher ranks of hockey. Whether that is a good thing or not, we will have to wait and see, but that is what is happening and it could lead to more comfortable and skilled players in the future.