Professional Hockey – Different Leagues And Levels

When you think of ice hockey and the different professional hockey leagues that exist, there are definitely a few that you’re bound to name straight away.

However, for other people, it’s not quite as easy.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of different ice hockey players with varying levels of ability around the world, which causes a demand for more leagues.

If we only had one league in the entire world, then there would be too many games in a season to count!

Because of this, we want to try and highlight all of the different leagues and levels of professional ice hockey that are seen in North America.

Ultimately, they all have varying ability levels that should be given time and attention.

There are two main tiers of hockey professionally coming in the form of the National Hockey League, known by most as the NHL, and the minor professional hockey leagues.

These are where you’re likely to find the widest variety of skills and abilities, with hundreds of teams featured throughout Canada and the US.

How many different levels of ice hockey are there? Are they all as good as each other?

What’s the highest level of hockey league in North America? Let’s find out together!

Hopefully, our guide will allow you to be an expert in the different professional competitions of ice hockey.

National Hockey League - NHL

In case you didn’t know, the NHL is North America’s biggest and best league when it comes to professional ice hockey.

If you aspire to be one of the best players in the world, then this is the league that everyone looks toward, making it their goal to appear in a league that attracts elite hockey players from around the globe.

The headquarters for this league can be found in New York City, with 31 different teams making up the league.

24 of these sides are found in the US, with the other 7 located in Canada.

Because this is the best league in the world, the salaries are very desirable, with players making anything between $700,000 and $13m every year.

The average is about $3m per year, which is more than a lot of people will make in 10 years!

Although we’re here to look at the different leagues, we’d be remiss if we didn't give a special mention to the Stanley Cup, which was formed in 1892 and named after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley.

The best teams of the NHL will battle it out to be crowned champions of the Stanley Cup, with this honour being one of the highest a team can gain throughout the world of ice hockey.

The trophy itself weighs 34.5 pounds, which is pretty heavy!

Standing at 3 feet in height, the Cup is constantly being added to each team, with the winners having their names inscribed on the trophy for all to see.

Because of this, the trophy gets bigger over the years to facilitate the growing number of teams.

Minor Professional Leagues

Apart from the NHL, the minor professional hockey leagues are the solitary professional leagues throughout the US.

There are four different leagues throughout the minor professional leagues, each one with varying numbers of teams involved in each competition.

These leagues aren’t created equally in comparison to each other, with major salary differences and chances of being drafted into the NHL, which is the ambition for the majority of hockey players.

One major thing to note is that these leagues are separated into A, AA, and AAA so that they are easier to keep track of.

The AAA is the highest out of all of the leagues below the NHL.

Secondly, these leagues are only based throughout the US, with Canada having a lot of minor professional divisions, too.

This is without even mentioning Europe and the rest of the world!

American Hockey League

Starting in Massachusetts, or Springfield to be exact, the AHL is the biggest and best out of all of the minor professional hockey leagues.

This league, much like the NHL, features 31 teams, with the vast majority being based within the US. Although, there are a few based in Canada, of course.

Compared to the salaries we mentioned above for the NHL, the AHL has a salary range between around $39,000 and $350,000 per year, which is still very good!

Of course, if you’re toward the top end of this bracket, then you can expect to be aiming for an NHL draft and a pay rise to go along with it.

Because this is the highest standard out of the minor leagues, you can expect the majority of new NHL drafts to be coming from this league, as opposed to the others.

The AHL features four different divisions,: Pacific, Central, Atlantic, and North.

These all have around 7 or 8 teams in each division, with an affiliate NHL side for each team.

Each year, these teams compete to win the Calder Cup, much like the NHL and the Stanley Cup, just on a lesser level.

This was named after the first president of the NHL, Frank Calder. This is the highest honour to aim for at this level for players and coaches alike.

East Coast Hockey League

The ECHL is a middle-of-the-range professional league located in Princeton, New Jersey.

There are slightly fewer teams in this league when compared to the AHL, with 25 sides altogether.

These teams are spread out across the whole of the US, with the league being ranked as an AA league.

This makes them a tier lower than the previously mentioned AHL but above the SPHL and the FPHL.

This league is a development division for the league above them and has actually been known to send players all the way to the NHL on rare occasions.

Created in 1988, there have been around 700 players from the ECHL that have gone on to feature in the NHL.

The salary ranges quite a lot, with some earning as low as $450 every week, compared to the higher bracket of $13,000 every week of the season.

Big difference from the NHL, right? The respective cup for this level is the Kelly Cup, which is given to the playoff winners.

This particular competition was named after the league commissioner for the early stages of this league’s existence, Patrick Kelly.

He was also one of the founders of the league.

Southern Professional Hockey League

SPHL Player Practicing
Professional Hockey Player Practicing

Located in Huntersville, North Carolina, the SPHL was only founded in 2004 and originally started with just 9 teams in the division.

Almost all of these teams are found in the southeastern areas of the US, with a few of these teams stretching as far west as Illinois.

There has been a reasonably high turnover of teams leaving and joining this league in the last 18 years or so compared to the higher leagues.

This league is one of the lowest-ranked professional leagues in the world today, only ranked as an A league, compared to the AA and AAA ranks of the ECHL and the AHL, respectively.

It’s rare that many players will ever make it to these higher leagues, with only one player ever making it to the NHL since the SPHL’s formation in 2004.

However, this isn’t helped by the fact that the players in this league don’t make enough money to live on, which prompts a lot of the SPHL players to have jobs on the side of playing hockey to stay afloat.

At the end of the day, these players want to make it but will need to make enough money to survive!

This division ends with the teams competing to win the President’s Cup. The top 8 sides will go on to try and win the playoffs.

Federal Prospects Hockey League

Much like the previous league, the FPHL joins the SPHL as a single A league, which is the worst out of the professional league tiers.

Founded in 2010, this league is unlike the others, with two different divisions. These two divisions are the Eastern and Western areas of the league.

Most recently, there were 10 teams in the division, with the winners being Watertown Wolves.

Although they’re quite low down in the pecking order for being drafted into a ‘respectable’ league, players in the FPHL have a decent shot at being promoted into the SPHL, ECHL, and the AHL.

Since the league was first created, over 500 ice hockey players have moved up into a league with a higher rank.

At the end of each season, the best 4 teams in the division will battle it out to win the Commissioner's Cup, which is always a good way to end the season for the winning side.

The last winners of this competition were Watertown Wolves, whom we mentioned earlier.

For the 2022/23 season, there are 3 new teams entering the fray, coming in the form of Mississippi Sea Wolves, Elmira Mammoth, and Motor City Rockers.

Most Successful NHL Teams

Detroit Red Wings

When it comes to the Stanley Cup, there are a lot of successful teams, considering how long the league has been around.

The third most successful side since the league’s creation is the Detroit Red Wings, which are in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.

This side has made the finals 24 times with 11 separate victories. Not bad!

Toronto Maple Leafs

Created in 1917 and based in the Canadian city of Toronto, the Leafs are found in the Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division.

They have made the finals on 21 different occasions and have accumulated 13 Stanley Cups, starting in 1918.

The Maple Leafs are easily one of those teams that are recognized internationally by a lot of people.

Montreal Canadiens

Taking the top spot on the podium is the Montreal Canadiens, who are a lot more successful than any of the other teams on our list.

They have an impressive 24 wins in 34 finals appearances, making them favourites in a lot of their different appearances.

Starting with their first finals win in 1924, they won the competition in 1993.

They have also won the Conference Championships on 8 different occasions.

They are also the longest continuously operating ice hockey side in the world of professional sport.

They are also the only side out of the NHL to exist before the formation of the league itself, so it’s not a massive surprise that they’ve found so much success over the years.

On top of this, they are also one of the oldest professional sports franchises in the whole of North America.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it!

There are a lot of different teams in varying leagues found throughout the professional pyramids in the North American ice hockey leagues.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of players with varying levels of ability and skills.

This means that there needs to be a large number of leagues and teams to facilitate the different athletes.

Throughout this sport, there are a lot of different salaries being seen in professional hockey.

However, when you reach a certain level lower down in the leagues, you will find that a lot of players have other jobs to keep them afloat.