Johnny Gaudreau Joins the USHL Invasion

At first blush, the ascendance of Calgary Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau doesn’t seem to be anything terribly out of the ordinary.

Sure, he’s a college star who’s made the jump straight to the NHL, but many guys have done that in the past. Sure, he’s a shorter fella having success, but plenty of smaller players have had success in the NHL.

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

No, the impressiveness of Johnny Gaudreau’s jump to the NHL ranks and contention for the Calder Trophy comes from two major factors: he’s the first serious Calder candidate from Calgary since Dion Phaneuf, and if he wins the hardware, he’ll be the first graduate of the United States Hockey League to win it since Gary Suter – another Flame – in 1986. By an amazing coincidence, Suter was also a product of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, just like Johnny Hockey.

Gaudreau’s arrival and success in the NHL may act as a signal of something important. The USHL has arrived.

USHL: A BRIEF HISTORY

Though through its pre-cursor leagues it traces its roots back to the late 1940s, the United States Hockey League has operated as a junior league since 1979. The league began as an seven-team grouping and failed to really make a big impact on the NHL ranks right away.

Of course, the league did become a steady source for late-round draft picks in short order. The first USHLer chosen was the Austin Maverick’s Richard Zombo by the Detroit Red Wings late in the 1981 Draft, and subsequently you could count on a handful of USHL players being chosen late. And aside from a brief flurry of draft activity in the early 1990s, including Peter Ferraro becoming the first USHL player chosen in the first round in 1992 – 24th overall by the New York Rangers – the USHL appeared destined to be a niche league for players to hone their craft as they prepared for college hockey.

But that all changed just a few years ago.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Two major factors contributed to the rise of the United States Hockey League over the past 10 or so years. First, the league was successful in expanding itself – growing to 17 teams – and that expansion provided more opportunities for unproven junior talent to try their luck at a higher level of hockey, as well as created more competition between the league’s clubs for the best recruits.

The other major factor was the inclusion of the powerhouse United States National Under-18 Development Team, long a pathway to a spot both in the USA Hockey World Under-18 and World Junior championship rosters, as well as the National Hockey League. Adding the U.S. Under-18s in 2009 essentially began an arms race that really ramped up the competition level in the league. If you weren’t good enough as a player to make that team, you could join another USHL team and hope to prove yourself to NHL and college scouts with a strong showing. And the same goes for teams: a strong series with the National Development Team could help recruiting the following season.

Paired with the growth of youth hockey in many different areas of the United States, the expansion of the scope and profile of the USHL has provided options for young Americans pursuing their hockey dreams. While previously they may have had to leave for the Canadian major junior system, now they can pursue the college route directly or use the USHL as a stepping stone.

(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

THE NHL IMPACT

The 2014 Draft represented a milestone of sorts for the USHL. 35 players were selected in that draft after playing the previous season with USHL clubs, representing 16.7% of all players selected in that draft. (Both are record highs for the league.) Even if you discount the players chosen from the U.S. National Development Team, it’s still 18 selections spanning several of the best USHL clubs. Even beyond this season’s draft, the USHL’s footprint can now be prominently seen across several NHL rosters.

“It’s been developing players for awhile now,” said Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba, an alumnus of the U.S. National Development Team. “It’s been getting better and better and that’s good for hockey in the U.S., to keep players down there and develop their own players. It’s definitely a good thing.”

Trouba was a highly-touted player destined firmly for the U.S. college ranks when he played in the USHL. However, for players like Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons – a Latvian import who had been selected by the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets in the Canadian import draft and was being pursued by college teams – the USHL allowed a bit more flexibility.

“You can have options after that year,” said Girgensons, a Dubuque alumnus. “You can sign in NHL or you can go to college, it depends on how ready you are. I just think it gives you a little bit more options.”

The Calgary Flames have heavily drafted USHL players in recent years, including defenseman Patrick Sieloff (who went to the Ontario Hockey League) and goaltender Jon Gillies (who went to college) in the 2012 Draft. But the crown jewel of their USHL draft picks is likely Gaudreau, who went there as a young man not entirely sure if he would be successful and was able to tear up the league and win a championship before moving onto college dominance.

“It was a great experience for me,” recalled Gaudreau. “A lot of travel on the buses, but you’re with your teammates the whole time. It’s a great little experience before you head off to college or your next team, wherever you’re playing.”

Once a fringe league hoping to find a niche, the USHL has kept growing, and may eventually become as crucially important a pipeline of talent to the NHL ranks as its Canadian major junior counterparts. And that can only continue to be a good thing for the development of the game of hockey, and the development of hockey players, in the United States.

(A previous version of this article noted that 30 players were selected from the USHL in 2014. The actual number was 35. Landon Ferraro was also listed as a 1992 first rounder in error. He was born in 1991 and has no relation to 1992 first rounder Peter Ferraro.)