These are good times for the USHL. Approaching its 15th season as America's only Tier 1 junior hockey league, the 17-team circuit is enjoying unprecedented success as a path to both NCAA Division 1 and the NHL.
As its influence and impact continues to grow, it is the perfect moment for the league to update its brand with a striking new logo.
“We think the logo we have currently is nice, but it's more of a corporate logo, not a brand," says USHL commissioner Bob Fallen. "We wanted something that would resonate more with fans and players, something that would symbolize what the league represents.”
For Fallen, that meant something that would reflect the opportunity of upward mobility presented by the league. The rising star, then, was an obvious centerpiece. The USHL has a long history of developing top talent. Three current NHL captains—Joe Pavelski of the Sharks, Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens and David Backes of the Blues—are league alums. So are young stars like Blake Wheeler, Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel. But the league's model doesn't end with molding the next generation of on-ice stars.
“We're not only a development league for best young players, but also coaches [and officials],” he says. “Five years ago, Jon Cooper was in Green Bay coaching the Gamblers. Now he's with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jeff Blashill of the [Detroit] Red Wings? Six years ago he was with the Indiana Ice.
“We're very proud of the way that we're putting players, coaches and officials in a position to get to next level.”
The seven stripes serve a dual purpose. They're emblematic of the American flag, but also pay homage to the seven original clubs that were there at its beginnings as junior league in 1979.
The result is a look that is both timeless and of the moment.
“We think this is a tighter logo," Fallen says. "It looks more like a league logo as opposed to a team logo."
The re-branding is a great stepping off point for a league that is coming into it's own as an elite developmental circuit.
No junior league had more players selected in the 2015 NHL draft than the USHL's 37— a total that doesn't include the 11 players who, like No. 2 pick Eichel, were selected out of college after spending time there. Four USHLers—Colin White (Ottawa), Brock Boeser (Vancouver) and Kyle Conner and Jack Roslovic (Winnipeg)—were selected in the first round.
It was an eye-opening performance. And the parade of talent is only beginning.
The 2016 NHL draft, slated for Friday and Saturday in Buffalo, might feature the best and deepest pool of American talent in history. Many of those players, including Kieffer Bellows, have honed their game in the USHL.
Bellows, a solidly-built center, scored 33 goals as a 16-year-old with the Sioux Falls Stampede before netting 16 in just 23 games with the National Team Development Program this past season. The son of longtime NHL star Brian Bellows is expected to be a first-round selection on Friday. So are Riley Tufte, a 6' 5", 211-pound power forward who split this season between high school and the Fargo Force, and Clayton Keller, who passed Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane to become the all-time leading scorer of the US NTDP.
But it's not just Americans who are catching the NHL's eye via the USHL. The league is attracting more high-end foreign-born talent as well. Canadians Cameron Morrison (Youngstown) and Wade Allison (Tri City) are among a handful of current players who could be taken in the second round.
“We're starting to get a lot of top players from all over the world, including Canada," Fallen says. "The days of saying the only road to the show is through major junior, that's no longer applicable. You've got 30% of the National Hockey League now going the junior-to-college route. We think that's a more sustainable model. The average age of the NHL rookie is nearly 23 years old. Maybe we can help them develop on the ice and in the class room and get them to the National Hockey League at the same time."
The USHL welcomed players from 14 different nations last season, according to Fallen. That's a testament to how effectively the league has closed the developmental gap.
“One of the ways you measure that is where the best players in world want to play,” Fallen says. “For example, [Andrei] Svechnikov from Russia. He's likely to be a top-10 pick [in 2017], and he's chosen to play [next season] for the Muskegon Lumberjacks."
Landing a budding superstar like Svechnikov, whose brother, Evgeny, chose to play in the QMJHL before being taken in the first round by the Red Wings in 2015, is a coup for the league and its growing reputation for grooming elite talent for the pros.
But while the NHL is everyone's end goal, the league's first priority is to prepare players to succeed at the NCAA level. And it's doing an outstanding job of that.
“Ninety-six percent of our kids get [NCAA Division 1] opportunities,” Fallen says. “Forty-five percent of [players in] the Ivy League came from the USHL. Over 50% of the captains from Division 1 came from the USHL. Nine of last 12 Frozen Four MVPs came from the USHL. So it's not just quantity, it's quality.”
While these players are benefiting from their time in the league, the USHL is benefiting from the explosion of hockey in non-traditional American markets. As the NHL has expanded its footprint via expansion into California, Texas, Florida and Arizona, the sport is attracting top athletes who might otherwise have pursued baseball or football.
Those shifting demographics are changing the nature of hockey.
“Just a few years ago, 25% of the kids in our league came from Minnesota," Fallen says. "Now it's 12%. Does that mean Minnesota is producing fewer quality hockey players? No, it's that other parts of the nation are producing outstanding, Tier 1-capable players."
And with this explosive growth in talent, Fallen believes there's an opportunity for the USHL to expand in the near future. It's an opportunity he's exploring with caution.
“Right now, it's all about the business model,” he said. “We're a bus league. A lot of our players are in school, so we can't have them traveling all over the place during the week. Once you expand, you get too far out of your geographic footprint, you start to change your business model.
“Ultimately, what we'd like to do is look at expanding modestly over the next couple of years, where we go from 17 to 20, maybe 24 teams,” Fallen said. “[Ideally] we'd have a footprint of four divisions that are a little more tightly wound where the farthest travel is 4-6 hours.”
That kind of growth bodes well for the U.S. as a developing hockey superpower, and for the increasing stature of the USHL in hockey's hierarchy, Fallen said.
"We're excited about what's happening and looking forward to bigger and brighter things in the future."