Not all junior hockey is alike.
Besides calibre of play and players, there are varying levels that include Major Junior, Junior A and Junior B in Canada and Tier 1 Junior, Tier 2 Junior and Tier 3 Junior in the United States of America.
On the Canada-USA border at Sault Ste. Marie, there are three separate leagues of higher-level, junior hockey separated by a mere two miles of St. Mary's River and International Bridge.
Soo Greyhounds play in the Ontario Hockey League, Soo Thunderbirds are members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and Soo Eagles skate within the North American Hockey League.
To be sure, the styles of play in the OHL (Major Junior), NOJHL (Junior A) and NAHL (Tier 2 Junior) are decidedly different.
The OHL, as part of the Canadian Hockey League that also includes the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League, is a direct feeder system to the National Hockey League through the annual entry draft. A high-performance league that has become more offensive since the turn of the decade, the OHL is more of a goal-scoring loop than the NAHL.
For example, let's compare two division leaders from the OHL and NAHL.
Sarnia Sting of the OHL averages just under four goals for per game while allowing three. On the NAHL side, Soo Eagles average just under three goals for per game while allowing a tad over two.
While scores of 6-4 and 5-3 are common in the OHL, games in the NAHL are more apt to end in 4-3 and 3-2 scores.
As the OHL is regarded as one of the top development leagues in the world for the NHL, the NAHL specializes in producing players for the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association ranks, many of whom then move on to the pros after leaving school.
The NAHL also produces more than its fair share of high-end goalies.
As a matter-of-fact, two current NCAA goalies were drafted by the NHL from NAHL at the 2012 draft with Anthony Stolarz being taken by the Philadelphia Flyers from the Corpus Christi IceRays in the second round and goalie Connor Hellebuyck being plucked from the Odessa Jackalopes by the Winnipeg Jets in the fifth. Stolarz is now a freshman at Nebraska-Omaha as Hellebuyck is in his first season at UMass-Lowell.
Both the OHL and NAHL are known for being fast-paced, though the OHL has more of an abundance of skilled forwards in comparison to the NAHL.
When asked to compare the two leagues, one NHL scout said: "At first blush, there is not a lot of difference watching an OHL game and an NAHL game. But the more you watch, the more the skilled players of the OHL stand out. Goaltending, to me, is where the NAHL compares favourably with the OHL and that's a credit to the NAHL as a Tier 2 league compared to the OHL as a Major Junior league."
The NOJHL, to be sure, pales in comparison to the OHL and NAHL when it comes to overall skill and speed.
Still, the seven-team NOJHL had two of its former players taken at the 2012 NHL draft.
Detroit Red Wings took former Soo Eagles (from their NOJHL days) goalie Jake Paterson in the third round. Paterson, now in his second season as an OHL starter with the Saginaw Spirit, is also a member of the Team Canada squad that is competing at this year's World Junior Hockey Championships.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Kings took defenceman Colin Miller, formerly of the NOJHL's Soo Thunderbirds, in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL draft. Miller is now in his third OHL season with Soo Greyhounds.
According to the NHL scout: "The NOJHL is a league that we do pay some attention to, believe it or not. One of our scouts gets to at least a couple of games every year."
The NOJHL develops an average of four players for the Major Junior ranks every year. Which, for a seven-team league, is commendable.