When it comes to college ice hockey in America, most people would immediately think of the NCAA, and for a good reason. There is a brand of collegiate hockey that flies under the radar, however: the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
ACHA-level hockey is a clear step below the NCAA. While it’s not impossible for ACHA players to continue playing professional hockey post-college, only the best are given the opportunity to continue to play in an advanced league.
One example of a standout ACHA player who has made it to a professional level is Chris Joseph, who said he would either next play for the Elmira Jackals in the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League), which is two levels below the NHL, or in a league in France.
Joseph, after graduating from Stony Brook following the 2014-15 season, went to an open camp hosted by the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL). After 20 games with the Havoc, the coach of the ECHL-level Evansville IceMen called Joseph up to play with them.
The IceMen will be dormant for the 2016-17 season while the franchise relocates to Owensboro. A self-proclaimed defensive-defenseman, the 24-year-old Joseph is cautiously optimistic that he may skate on NHL ice one day while he awaits his next career move.
“It’s a long shot, to be frank, but it’s in the back of my mind,” Joseph said. “If you work hard enough and play well enough, it can happen, even though [the ECHL] is two levels below. If not, I’ve made it further than a lot of people ever thought I would, so I’m definitely happy.”
The furthest that any former ACHA player has gone is Daniel Walcott, a 22-year-old defenseman who was drafted in the fifth round (140th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Rangers. Walcott currently plays for the Syracuse Crunch, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After spending the 2012-13 season at Lindenwood, Walcott played most of two seasons for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL.
According to Hockey’sFuture, which calls itself “The #1 Online Prospects Resource,” Walcott “was a rare 19-year-old rookie in the Quebec Montreal Junior Hockey League when he stepped in to fill a big role in his first year of junior hockey. Despite his inexperience, he played a mature game with poise befitting his lack of experience at a high level. Contributing at both ends of the ice with a physical edge to his game, Walcott’s puck-moving skills are top notch.”
Very few ACHA players are able to make it to the next level like Joseph and Walcott .
“Playing next level after ACHA is possible, but hockey will end for 99 percent of them, so they’ll want to have that degree behind them,” Stony Brook Head Coach Chris Garofalo said. “You never know what can happen, but the odds are not in their favor.”
Stony Brook ice hockey captain JT Hall is an example of an extraordinarily skilled ACHA player who is hoping to make the leap to a higher professional level following his graduation.
The 23-year-old forward still has one year left with the Seawolves after dominating the ACHA as a junior. He won the ACHA Men’s Division I Player of the Year Award after scoring 71 points (30 goals, 41 assists) in 34 games.
“After college, I do want to continue playing competitively as long as I can,” Hall said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’m already coaching youth children and hope to continue that if my goals of playing don’t work out.”
Unfortunately for Hall, players over the age of 20 cannot be drafted into the NHL, so he would have to be signed as a free agent and likely go through the minor professional leagues. He has an idea of how he can make that happen.
“I feel like in my senior year, the team would have to win a national championship,” Hall said. “That is always the goal as a team, and as a captain, it would open doors for our players.”
A player as skilled as Hall would have gotten more exposure playing at the NCAA level, so one may wonder why he chose to play for an ACHA team.
“I chose Stony Brook because of the great organization and education system we have here,” Hall said. “Sure, I might have gotten more exposure [at NCAA] but not until my junior or senior year of college. Playing here has helped develop my game.”
On the ACHA Talk website, there are over 80 listed ACHA players who have transitioned to the professional level. That’s still a small number given the large amount of players who have gone through the league. So where do they end up?
“A large percentage of them go into the Senior A men’s leagues in the local communities,” Pete Hall, a former Stony Brook ice hockey defenseman in 1989, and coach, said. “There’s a small percentage that can play a higher level to play out of college, but it’s a long, tough road.”
Pete Hall noted that by the time the majority of players finish up in the ACHA, they are past the 20-year-old age maximum to be drafted into the NHL. Players would need to climb the ranks of minor league systems and rely on free agency.
“Would I say it’s impossible? No,” Pete Hall said. “You could get a late-bloomer to do it, potentially. But by the time you’re in a pro-system in your early to mid 20s, it’s a tough thing to do.”
For professional players who are not at the NHL-level, income isn’t ideal, but it’s manageable.
“Playing in [ECHL], you can get away with it [being your primary source of income] depending on your lifestyle,” Joseph said. “You get an apartment for free and they take care of everything for you on the road. You get a $45 per diem every day on the road and then I get paid every week.”
After his playing career, Joseph plans to go back to school for his Masters as well as put his psychology degree to use and work as a guidance counselor.
Some other disciplines that Stony Brook hockey players major in are engineering, economics and business, according to Garofalo.
The key lesson for ACHA players seems to be having a solid backup job planned if a professional hockey career doesn’t work out for them, which is the case for most players. For those players on the bubble, Joseph offered some advice.
“Keep working,” he said. “The [ACHA] is getting a lot better and it’s not being overlooked as much. There’s a lot of talent in our league, even though you’re playing ‘club hockey.’”
If Joseph is right and the ACHA continues to evolve, more players might be able to make the jump to the next level of hockey, and perhaps, the NHL one day.