Every hockey player — from the professional to the recreation-league player skating at the local rink — had to get a start on the ice somewhere. And for many players, particularly in Canada, that start came early, often before they even reached elementary-school age.
While there are learn-to-skate classes and other more informal programs for children who are younger, the organized minor hockey system generally starts at age five and works its way up to the junior level where players are as old as 20.
While the category breakdowns and names may differ slightly from province to province, state to state, and country to country, the information below provides a brief overview of the most common levels of minor hockey.
Initiation (called Mini Mite in the United States)
The Initiation division — called Hockey 1 and Hockey 2 in British Columbia — is the division of minor hockey for beginning players ages five to six. It is mostly designed to help youngsters learn the game while keeping the focus on fun.
Novice (called Mite in the United States)
The Novice division — Hockey 3 and Hockey 4 in British Columbia — is for players ages seven to eight and, like the Initiation level, players are still learning the ins and outs of the game.
Atom (called Squirt in the United States)
Once players (nine to 10 years old) reach Atom, it is common for top players to be selected for A1 (AAA), A2 (AA), A3 (A) or B rep teams, which typically travel more than recreational (house-league) teams and will play teams from other cities (rather than within their own local association). Other players will remain in their respective association’s “house” league, which is designed for those who do not want, or are not ready for, the intense competition of rep-level hockey.
The Peewee division is for players aged 11 to 12 and, like Atom, often features both rep and house-league levels.
The Bantam division is for players aged 13 to 14. It is the division where many top players begin to take things more seriously. For starters, second-year Bantam players are eligible for the Canadian Hockey League’s Major Junior draft, and junior-hockey scouts can often be found at many rep team’s games.
Midget (or Midget Minor)
Unlike the previously mentioned minor hockey divisions, players stay in Midget hockey for three seasons (as opposed to two), from 15 to 17 years old. But like other levels, there is still house-league competition, in addition to the various rep programs.
Most states in the U.S. and provinces in Canada now have Major Midget divisions (sometimes called Midget AAA). Major Midget, also for 15- to 17-year-olds, is considered one step up from the top Midget rep team. Teams are often regional in nature, consisting of players from a variety of nearby associations. They compete on a regional circuit, often travelling on weekends.
The Juvenile division is for players aged 18 to 20 who choose to continue to play minor hockey rather than move on to the junior leagues.
Junior B (called Junior AA in Quebec and Tier III in the United States)
Junior B hockey is open to players from 16 to 20 years old. Junior B leagues are considered to be a feeder system to the Junior A ranks, and even to the Canadian Hockey League’s three Major Junior leagues: the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
Junior A (called Junior AAA in Quebec and Tier II in the United States)
Junior A is for players aged 16 to 20 and is one level below the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). It is also a feeder system to U.S. and Canadian college/university teams. Each province west of the Atlantic provinces has its own Junior A league (the Atlantic provinces have a joint, regional league) and players are eligible to be traded, not just throughout their own leagues, but to other leagues as well. This is the preferred route for players hoping to obtain a U.S. scholarship to play National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) hockey. This is because if they decide to go the Major Junior route (see below) they become ineligible to play U.S. college hockey. Players can, however, play college hockey in Canada once their Major Junior careers are over.
Major Junior (called Tier I in the United States)
Considered the highest level of junior hockey, Major Junior teams compete in three leagues across the country (along with some American franchises, too): the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Major junior players are considered professionals in the eyes of the NCAA — they receive small stipends to play — and are ineligible to play U.S. college hockey once they play in an official Major Junior game. Major Junior is considered by many to be the best route for players to go if they are seeking to have professional careers.